‘This isn’t a workplace, it’s a friendship group’
Even before I arrive at ELATT Connected Learning in East London, I know that this charity training provider is a force to be reckoned with.
ELATT has provided education and support to marginalised young people and adults for the past 31 years, offering a route out of long-term poverty and exclusion. Not only did it scoop three prizes at the 2016 TES FE Awards back in April – including the prestigious overall FE provider of the year title – but it is also rated outstanding across the board by Ofsted, it was in the top 20 best small places to work in the UK in 2014, and it has highly impressive statistics for achievement, progression and student satisfaction.
With this impressive record in mind, I assume that I will be visiting an imposing, heavily branded glass monument to match the technology companies in nearby Shoreditch. But I find a building that hums with community spirit rather than corporate gloss.
There is a rockery outside the entrance, and a van selling healthy cooked food is parked next to a group of mismatched chairs covered by an awning. The area is bustling with students of all ages. Inside, the low-key, friendly atmosphere continues. As I’m taken past the vibrant, open-plan staffroom to the staff kitchen, it feels as though I’m stepping back in time – in a good way.
I am sitting alone at the kitchen table looking at a windowsill lined with spider plants when a smiling member of staff strides in. She makes herself a sandwich and offers to make me one, too. I want to hug her. I’ve already seen enough to start considering selling up and moving to Hackney to try to get a job at this welcoming organisation. I later learn that this would probably remain just a dream because staff turnover is so low. Once people start working at ELATT, they don’t leave.
A recent survey recorded a 97 per cent student satisfaction rate, and last year 93 per cent of students achieved their learning aim, with 44 per cent recorded as being in work by the end of their course.
So what is happening in this modest setting to give skills, support and hope to people who live complex lives in disadvantaged neighbourhoods? The palpable feeling of community and of shared values is a big factor in ELATT’s success. IT tutor Touria Sadiq tells me that she can explore the curriculum to pack in as much learning as possible because of the trust and autonomy she is given as a teacher. She feels valued by the organisation and listened to by management.
Warmth and camaraderie
The strength of this learning community is also stressed by youth programme coordinator Oran Blackwood. “I don’t come to work thinking, ‘These are my colleagues’,” he says. “It’s a friendship group. That’s promoted from the top down, and that’s what you want from leadership.”
Later, I ask chief executive Anthony Harmer what single thing about ELATT gives him the most pride. He could tell me about the statistics, or the long-term, sustainable links with employers, or the focus on volunteerism that creates transformative opportunities for many learners, or the range of projects to develop and share good practice across the sector.
But he says none of these things. “I’m proudest of what a lovely bunch of people work here,” he explains. “They’re such a pleasure. It makes working easy because they are so willing, so flexible and so motivated and they want to do well for their students.”
ELATT focuses on life skills, English for speakers of other languages and a range of IT and creative digital courses, in addition to looking at the barriers students face and working out ways to overcome them.
Tutors span traditional “teaching” and “support” roles, Blackwood explains: “It’s about knowing that, at this point, I need to coach a little bit and work out what we need to do to move forward. At this point, I need to be a mentor to share my experience and knowledge so students understand that what they are doing is relevant to the real world. At this point, I just need to teach the skills. It’s being able to change gear between those roles.”
The purpose of this is to root out whatever barriers, big or small, are standing in the way of students’ progress. And that support is not just for the students who are of immediate concern. There is equal attention paid to stretch the ones who are doing well, to make sure that everyone is fulfilling their potential.
The genuine care for every student is matched by a steadfast ambition. This is demonstrated by a commitment to “over-teaching”: using qualifications as a basis for courses, rather than an end point.
Last year ELATT partnered with CrowdSkills, a digital start-up that aims to connect business with young freelancers, as part of the Teach Too project to diversify the curriculum and ensure industry relevance.
Tutors were concerned that some web design qualification specifications didn’t match employers’ expectations. So courses were redesigned and staff from CrowdSkills delivered part of the programme. After a year, the curriculum was revisited to identify any gaps, then reworked further to ensure that it would lead to employment.
“By the end of the level 1 course, students should be able to build a website competently,” Blackwood says. “By the end of level 2, they should be going out and pitching for work. We want to get them to a point of freelancing and earning money from what they are learning here, working on live projects with our support.”
ELATT enables people to flourish – not just the students who come through the doors but everyone who works there. The drive of the organisation is to empower teachers to do their job well, and the role of the leaders and managers is to find ways to facilitate that, not to prevent it.
With this goal in mind, Harmer is clear on who should take the credit for ELATT’s success at the TES FE Awards. “It’s the teachers who won it,” he says. “It’s the teachers who got us Ofsted outstanding. But education is the greatest thing you can offer, so really you’re already on to a winner.”
Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands
A night to remember
ELATT Connected Learning was a triple winner at this year’s TES FE Awards, taking home the prizes for:
Training provider of the year
Overall FE provider of the year