Workplace classes

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Joan Menmuir and Bill Thomson on making the best of work-based learning. One of the most interesting developments in higher education is the use of work-based learning agreements that benefit the workplace and give the individual academic credit towards a degree or diploma. Major firms like Ford and Rover have discovered that this not only enhances staff morale but benefits the company as well.

Some schools have begun to experiment with this approach. Kirkintilloch High School, for instance, has been using the former Dumbarton Division's school-based middle management training programme as a basis for staff and organisational development.

Strathclyde Region's Staff College has developed a mentoring approach to supporting staff undertaking management modules in the workplace and this approach is being used in a number of schools in the West of Scotland. Highland has a school-based programme on learning and teaching that is similarly focused on workplace action.

Teachers who participate in these programmes enhance their professional competence - and enjoy the experience. Schools get direct benefits that fit their development plans and, at a time of structural change in local government and shrinking resources, education departments and schools gain access to a wide range of professional expertise. Agreements by their very nature are tailored to meet specific needs.

The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council wants to extend this approach. It has funded a joint research project involving the Faculty of Education of Strathclyde University (as the lead institution), the Faculty of Education of Paisley University and St Andrew's College of Education. The project aims to promote learning agreements in schools. It also hopes to establish procedures that are user-friendly, both for schools and for teachers, and to make recommendations about quality assurance.

The three institutions concerned already have well developed systems within which teachers can gain postgraduate academic credit and all are involved in the use of work-based learning agreements.

A learning agreement is a formal written agreement between a learner or a group of learners or an organisation, and the university or college. It details what is to be learned, the resources and strategies available, what will be produced as evidence of successful learning and how that product will be assessed.

A method of structuring learning and assessment which allows teachers to direct their own learning within a set of overall goals, learning agreements have an important role in encouraging continuing professional development.

The joint-research project looks at the range of ways in which workplace learning agreements operate. This involves examining the relative roles and responsibilities of the major partners, the teachers, the schools, local authorities and the higher education institutions.

The project also analyses the major costs and benefits to each partner. Questions such as who pays and whether time to complete the agreement is resourced into the agreement are important - as is the identification of tangible benefits to the school. Each of the stakeholders has their own questions about costs and benefits.

The University of Paisley currently delivers a postgraduate certificate in educational computing in Shetland. The final module is a classroom-based project whose content and outcomes are negotiated in the school and with Paisley, and are then supported from a distance. St Andrew's College's approach to postgraduate courses in special educational needs also offers teachers a wide range of opportunities to direct their own learning within a set of overall goals agreed in negotiation with a school and with the higher education institution.

There is a range of similar project-based modules delivered throughout the postgraduate award bearing structures of the three institutions involved in the project. These modules all involve some degree of choice on the part of the teacher about what will be studied.

With Strathclyde University, the final stage of the masters award involves the development of a learning agreement proposal, followed by its implementation in the workplace. The TESS article by Philip McGee (January 26) on problem-solving skills illustrated the quality of these agreements and the extent to which they can influence practice.

Not all teachers involved in the masters programme are working at the final stage of the award. Many participants are devising their own learning agreements at the certificate and diploma stages of the range of awards. Studies as varied as "the evaluation of a distance learning pack for soccer" and "assessment strategies in primary school" are under way. The content of these modules is under the control of the participant, often working closely with their school management and using the agreement approach to focus on an aspect of their school development plan while also addressing an aspect of their own professional development plan.

There is no doubt that learning agreements are a powerful means of individual and organisational development. Both in higher education and in schools, as well as in other workplaces, people need to learn how to set them up and to manage them. We need simple procedures that are widely known about.

Further details about work-based learning agreements can be obtained from the Faculties of Education at Strathclyde, Paisley or St Andrew's College. Joan Menmuir and Bill Thomson work for the Awards and Accreditation Service, Strathclyde University.

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