RUGroom's royal seal shows class of the sector

7th May 2010 at 01:00
Comment: Toni Fazaeli

Being awarded the Queen's Anniversary Prize is a top achievement for a further education college or higher education institution. Sadly, it is rare for FE to stand proud alongside the HE award winners. This year the score was FE 3, HE 18. The further education and skills sector is surely concealing its talents, and there is no doubt in my mind, nor Ofsted's, that FE has excellence by the barrelful.

My recent visit to City College Norwich to meet the teachers who set up and run the innovative and world-leading specialist centre for learners on the autistic spectrum was part of our quest at the Institute for Learning (IfL) to celebrate more widely the amazing work that teachers do with their learners. I also wanted to encourage other teachers to consider putting their work forward for the next round of the Queen's Anniversary Prize.

The RUGroom at the college was developed by teachers with their students - real experts in the environments that foster learning for people with autism. I found the space light and calming. Everything seemed fresh - from the design of the chairs, the room layout effortlessly meeting curved surfaces and ceilings, to the tempting solo or a deux alcoves for quiet thinking and learning with or without state-of-the-art laptops.

As experts who focus relentlessly on meeting their learners' needs, the teachers reflect on their practice, and take their own professional learning very seriously. They have reviewed and adopted approaches to learning and modelling behaviour from the United States, making real the concept of "think local, be global" in their aspirations for the very best.

As part of ensuring support for their 140 or so learners across vocational and academic programmes, the centre's teachers have started a quiet revolution to help every teacher in the college become more expert in helping those with autism learn well. This does not stop at the college gates. The teachers give their unswerving attention to revolutionising employers' skills and attitudes, to ensure that work placements are successful and progression to employment is real for learners.

As a powerful advocate, Dick Palmer, the principal, ensured the RUGroom's prime position at the centre of the college's main building, signalling its prestige and the importance of learners with learning difficulties or disabilities.

I enjoyed a great chance to meet more IfL members at the college and to hear about another revolution. I was told that IfL had sparked a fire for continuing professional development (CPD), with more and more creative and new ways of doing CPD that improve teaching being generated.

In his "swift half hours", for example, one of the staff gives drop-in advice and practical help with using new technologies in teaching, from a refresher on how to burn a DVD to how to create a podcast. He imbues others with enthusiasm for teaching and boosts skills in IT to inspire learning. Time for CPD is built into the weekly timetable, so that individuals and small groups of teachers can undertake CPD that meets their needs and priorities, as we hear happens in the most acclaimed American charter schools.

As I left Norwich, I reflected on other revolutions. I pondered on whether Norfolk's four-course crop rotation system, which fuelled the agrarian revolution, was a patch on the progressive developments and the yield that teachers and management are getting for learners in further education.

  • Toni Fazaeli, Chief executive, Institute for Learning.

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