Integrating literacy and numeracy into vocational courses is helping to tackle a lack of basic skills among teenagers
In motor vehicle workshops at Chichester College, 14-year-olds are helped to understand fractions by piling up tyres. In construction, lecturers are teaching students about volume by showing them what a cubic metre of sand looks like.
From next year, under-16s taking art, design and media will be improving their English and maths almost without knowing it, as the college builds basic skills into drawing and video-making. And a game based on the TV show Blockbuster has been helping post-16 students with words they will encounter on floristry, horticulture and equine courses.
The college in West Sussex takes more than 1,000 pupils aged 14 to 16 from schools. While most attend one day a week under the increased flexibility programme, 150 attend full-time. For those who arrive with poor maths and English, lecturers build literacy and numeracy into their vocational courses, for which it has been shortlisted for a Beacon award.
Lis Bates, the college's director of 14 to 19 courses says this approach to basic skills is particularly effective with under-16s.
"If youngsters go to college to do brickwork and find themselves sitting in a classroom doing maths and English, they'll soon tell you that it's not what they came for," she says. "But if you can do it in the workshop they are in familiar surroundings and much more likely to engage in that sort of work."
The college uses a team of basic skills specialists to train its lecturers on how to embed literacy and numeracy in their teaching. But Ms Bates admits this is a challenge for some staff.
"It's not necessarily something they have embarked on before," she says.
"Some take to it like a duck to water. Others need more help."
A new study by the Learning and Skills Network finds that staff in colleges need more training to help them teach 14 to 16-year-olds. Much of the training on offer isin areas like child protection and behaviour management, rather than in curriculum design and development, it says. And it finds that simply adapting post-16 programmes doesn't always work.
Pupils often come in with key skill problems as well as poor motivation.
The research looked at 14 to 16 courses in six FE colleges in the West Midlands, to find ways of enhancing teaching. It says that colleges have had to be proactive in designing and delivering their programmes, "if only to address issues raised by their learning skills, behaviour and motivation". But despite this resulting in innovative approaches, there are still problems with managing and supporting basic skills.
One college offered an engineering course designed to engage disaffected youngsters. It was taught by a skilled tutor, offered the chance to build a go-cart or hovercraft and included a visit to a theme park to consolidate learning about hydraulics. Although the course was practical and rewarding, the students failed the theory.
"It was clear that most of the learners struggled with literacy and numeracy and understanding the theories," says the report.
The practice of including literacy and numeracy in vocational courses is growing. And according to a study by the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, it is having dramatic results.
After tracking almost 2,000 learners on level 1 and 2 courses, they found that 93 per cent gained key skills qualifications on courses where literacy was embedded, compared with 63 per cent on courses where it was not.
The study also showed that, when vocational teachers were also expected to teach literacy and numeracy, the proportion of students achieving qualifications fell by half. The message was that vocational teachers and basic skills specialists need to work together. The Basic Skills Agency says, that for this age group, early attention in matching the curriculum to the learner is essential and that colleges should make literacy and numeracy an integral part of the vocational curriculum.
Despite increasing efforts to do this "there is still a tendency to see literacy and numeracy as add-ons to the vocational curriculum", it says.
Some vocational programmes, such as BTec first diploma, come with basic skills built in. Some colleges use trained vocational staff, while others would use basic skills specialists. Colleges might also call on additional support staff to work with students one-to-one or in small groups.
Maggie Scott, of the Association of Colleges, says that, while colleges were at first apprehensive about teaching 14-year-olds and concerned about discipline, this has diminished as the teenagers adapt to the more mature environment. Now the challenge is in developing the curriculum to engage them.
"What's happened in the good partnerships is that teachers have helped colleges with the way in which we work with young people," she said. "So there's been an exchange of expertise between schools and colleges to their mutual benefit."