In the past, English and maths have often been seen as an “add-on” to vocational courses in further education. As someone who teaches both these subjects, I’ve witnessed a lack of prioritisation when it comes to things such as timetabling, communication and planning.
In fact, in some cases there is outright hostility to these subjects being included – often from students (who may resent the focus on what they see as “academic” subjects, bringing back memories of perhaps less-than-successful school careers) and even from staff, who can see it as an extra burden, or who may be unsure of their own skills in these areas.
However, thanks to the current focus on English and maths in FE (and the accompanying funding), this often neglected area is experiencing a resurgence. Attainment is now being looked at more closely than ever and there is a scrabble to come up with ways to maximise the effectiveness of teaching. So what can be done to bring these areas into greater alignment with vocational courses and help our students to reach a standard of English and maths that will benefit them in the future, no matter what career path they may choose?
First, there has to be a coordinated culture shift, where the importance of these areas is highlighted across all departments. To ensure that this takes place, it has to come from the top. It doesn’t mean just putting up a few posters on the walls (or checking to see if the ones that are already up are spelled correctly). It means that everyone should place visible importance on literacy and numeracy skills from the moment that a student enrols.
If you’re not already doing this, it isn’t an easy task to accomplish. Staff buy-in is essential, as it may mean extra work (marking for spelling, punctuation and grammar to a greater extent, reviewing schemes of work and so on), which could lead to resentment. To combat this, the reasons for the change need to be made explicit (both in relation to funding and benefit to the student) and “legacy attitudes” towards English and maths need to be challenged.
There also has to be support for staff who are not confident in their own English and maths skills. It’s unfair to expect teachers who are not necessarily specialists to start improving the skills of their students if they do not yet feel up to the task. Being unsure of your own literacy and numeracy is a difficult thing for an educator to admit, and staff must be given every opportunity to do so in an environment where the response will be constructive and non-judgemental. Support for English and maths should be in place as part of your college’s CPD programme – a year-round plan, not just something for designated training days.
Planning vocational schemes of work in partnership with English and maths teachers is one way of highlighting the areas where certain skills could be emphasised. This is often easier than starting with the skills and then looking at where they could be embedded. I always find it surprising how much vocational material lends itself to reinforcing literacy and numeracy. And if the areas where English and maths can be integrated are not immediately obvious, then it may be worth creating a specialist role, focused on reviewing schemes of work in order to find where literacy and numeracy content already exists. This planning has to happen early in order to be effective.
It’s not just important for vocational staff to build their literacy and numeracy skills – it’s also vital for English and maths staff to understand the complexities and form of different vocational curricula. There has to be a mutual respect and authentic exchange of ideas between the two.
An added benefit of this collaboration is that if you make this visible to the students, you enable them to see the team as a whole, rather than as comprising separate entities. This reinforces the importance of both areas and may go some way to minimising any concerns. Whether English and maths staff are within vocational areas or in their own department, communication is paramount.
I’m slightly biased, but I believe that English and maths have an inherent worth on their own terms, not just because they’re the flavour of the month. But, hopefully, these few small steps can get the ball rolling, get people working towards a common goal and stop learners asking, “Why are we doing this?”
Tom Starkey is an FE teacher and education consultant @tstarkey1212