You can hear yourself teach in sixth form colleges, a bit of a culture shock for some staff switching from schools, writes Susan MacDonald
If teachers were asked to name areas where the pros seriously did outweigh the cons, sixth form colleges would come high on the list. Students as well as teachers are there because they want to be, the age range is pleasingly narrow, the courses flexible, and pay and conditions attractive.
"Sixth form colleges are one of education's success stories over the past 30 years," says Ed Elvish, principal of Barrow-in-Furness sixth form college. They are popular with students, parents and those who work in them.
The words sixth form college conjure up an image of leafy suburbs, institutions of excellence offering the best chance for students. While some might fit that image, plenty do not. Some students might be choosing between several colleges locally; others are choosing whether or not to attend the only one within travelling distance.
Barrow is the town's only sixth form college, the largest in Cumbria, making it almost a community college. "We were built specifically as a sole sixth form provider in 1979, starting with 450 students. We now take 850," he says. "The reality is that, while the majority of staff are qualified on entering, it is not essential. Experience also counts, especially in vocational areas."
Caroline Buckley is a good example of this. She has been teaching law at Barrow since 2000, having been a student there in the early 1990s. After taking a degree at the University of Central Lancashire, she realised she could not afford to take the courses needed to practise law and sought the advice of her history teacher back at the college. The teacher's response was to shove her in front of the class and tell her to talk about the subject.
"I liked it and switched to teaching, studying three days a week for my PGCE and helping to teach for the other two days," she says. "To earn money, I taught law at evening classes five times a week.
"I loved teaching adults but was really fired up by working with sixth-formers."
Today, she is tutor of law and politics. "There has been a phenomenal increase in the numbers studying law since I was here. The course is so popular that we now employ three law teachers."
Angela O'Donoghue is principal of Brooke House sixth form college in Hackney. The college aims to cater for not just academic students but also poor achievers in a borough considered the poorest in London. It opened in 2002 with 500 students; today it caters for 1,500.
"Last year, just 36 per cent of our intake had five GCSEs - the new intake has raised this to 45 per cent," she says. "The teachers we need have to have the skills that cover our specific problems such as motivating students and ensuring regular attendance - as well as sending many of our students to university. Vocational and ethnic minority teachers are hard to find so we do accept non PGCE-qualified people if they have the necessary skills, providing they become qualified within two years of joining us. We also grow our own, using in-house training to enable support staff to become teachers."
Before 1993, when sixth form and FE colleges were taken out of local authority control, sixth form colleges were linked to schools and only qualified teachers could be employed. While principals such as Ms O'Donoghue and Mr Elvish are happy to go for specialised skills and let qualifications follow, others place greater emphasis on an initial qualification.
Richard Chambers, principal of Sir George Monoux sixth form college in Walthamstow, north-east London, says hsi college caters mainly for the large local Pakistani community and the specific language needs that must be addressed. "We are looking for graduate teachers with a good knowledge base of their subject who are also good classroom practitioners," he says.
James Bracewell is one of those. He started teaching in the secondary sector 24 years ago and switched to Monoux in 2002 because he wanted a new challenge.
"I was used to fitting my sixth form in with the activities of the rest of the school," he says, "especially recalcitrant 14 and 15-year-olds, and that meant focusing on orderly conduct.
"Here, it is the complete opposite. The whole institution is dedicated to the sixth form with the emphasis on new approaches and ideas. It's all about potential, imagination and possibilities, and for me it has been a steep learning curve. Unlike schools, we only have our students for two years - so it's important to make sure we've got it right."
Her skills with young people brought Faye Bernard to George Monoux. For 10 years, she had been a senior youth worker, a part-time lecturer in community care, and a teacher of personal health and social education in schools. "Then I saw that the Government was offering a teacher training grant so I left work and took the PGCE, working with 16 to 19-year-olds. It helped that I had a degree in education and psychology, a diploma in youth work and an MBA," she says.
"I asked to work at George Monoux during my training and after that I was offered a job as a student support officer there. Two years later I have just been made a BTech level 1 co-ordinator, which is offered for the first time at George Monoux, and which I teach. It's all very exciting, challenging and complicated."
Not everyone feels so happy. The Government is accused of unfairly favouring sixth form collegss, especially by those in FE where the pay gap with schools is the main bone of contention.
Sue Whitham, head of the secretariat of the Sixth Form Colleges Forum to which all sixth form colleges belong, says teachers pay is higher than in general FE because of its successful negotiating machinery and involvement of school teaching unions that dates back to 1993.