Teacher collaboration best for embedding
Or so they think. In practice, they are often dismayed to find that their new college timetable includes more of the same. The subjects may be presented in a different guise - "key skills" or "literacy and numeracy" - but young adults are rarely fooled by window dressing. Many vote with their feet by not turning up for classes.
But if maths is taught as an integral part of a hairdressing course, for example, and its vocational relevance is clear, young people's attitudes can be transformed. If learners realise that an understanding of proportion when mixing hair dye can help avoid potential disasters, maths can be seen in a different light.
Case studies published by the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) last year showed how literacy and numeracy work can be built into vocational courses as diverse as Indian head massage and nursing. Adults on a horticulture course with basic levels of literacy developed their reading and writing by studying seed packet instructions and writing invitations to sales of garden produce. So it is no surprise that increasing numbers of colleges are adopting an "embedded" approach that integrates literacy and numeracy with vocational programmes.
NRDC researchers have now produced some striking findings that provide even more justification for embedding (see this week's FE Focus in The TES).
They have found that 93 per cent of literacy learners in the sample gained qualifications on fully embedded courses compared with only 50 per cent where the literacy component was taught in a separate and unconnected way.
The figures for numeracy were 93 per cent and 69 per cent respectively. The embedded courses that the NRDC surveyed also had better retention rates (78 per cent compared with only 63 per cent for non-embedded courses).
But what does an embedded approach mean for the staff concerned? It means numeracy, literacy and vocational teachers working together to ensure that learners' different needs are catered for. It means teachers planning "behind the scenes" so that the numeracy concepts implicit in a vocational task are introduced at an appropriate stage of the course.
In essence, the challenge is for teachers to find new ways of co-operating with one another. Teachers from different backgrounds have to be prepared to learn from each other, which is not necessarily easy.
NRDC research is, however, showing that collaboration is happening, even though it sometimes requires teachers to change long-established practices and attitudes. To be effective, teams of teachers need time together, which means they must be timetabled to be in the same place at the same time. If teachers work in different subject areas, this can often require a whole-organisation commitment to embedding.
There is no single best model. Each organisation needs to devise approaches that suit its own context, the skills of individual teachers and the learners themselves. The fact is, that well-developed teaching skills and good relationships between teachers are more important than almost any model of embedding.
I say "almost" because there is one exception. Some organisations have asked vocational teachers to teach literacy and numeracy too. This may seem logical and economical. But our research reveals that learners' results deteriorate when vocational teachers take dual responsibility in this way.
Is this surprising? Not really. As one teacher said to an NRDC researcher:
"We don't ask literacy teachers to teach plastering, why should we expect plastering teachers to teach literacy?"
Why indeed? But perhaps now that we have a clearer idea of what works and what doesn't, that false economy will be made less often in future.
Helen Casey is an associate director of the NRDC, based at the Institute of Education, University of London: www.nrdc.org.uk