Why teachers need to go beyond exam specifications

Exam boards' guidelines are unimaginative - teachers have to push the boundaries to engage students, says Roshan Doug

Roshan Doug

How do you become a great functional skills teacher?

The key to being a good teacher lies largely in your understanding of curriculum design.

Take, for instance, the guidelines and specifications from examining boards for functional skills English. These stipulate fairly unimaginative reading resources and lesson plans, playing it safe by sticking closely to the skills descriptors.

They mention very little in regard to developing students' awareness of the social and political landscape and neither do they talk much about facts, education or knowledge. They concern themselves primarily with skills while their guidelines and specifications contain only minimal reference to students’ enjoyment, engagement and interests.

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Student engagement

However, although a grave omission, it is one that is understandable. Exam boards are in the business of advising providers on how to "get their students through". Although it might sound harsh, they offer little more than that.

For instance, their guidelines and specifications do not concern themselves with behavioural management, students' disaffection with education and the rise in absentees.

Yet these are concerns of many – if not all – providers. Teachers, in particular, are required to address such issues with both alacrity and seriousness. In the end, not only are they responsible for the management and delivery of their subject but they also have to produce evidence of what they are doing to keep students in class – what action they take regarding absentees or how they follow up with these students. This is because college management want to see tangible results.

This is particularly the case with the functional skills provision.

However, dealing with prescriptive syllabi that only address exam skills is wholly unsatisfactory because it creates more problems than it solves.

Teaching to the exam?

Educationalists – whether policymakers, examiners, managers or teachers – must not lose sight of the fact that they are in the business of educating young people by imparting knowledge. Their foremost duty is to the students, to widen their perspective and to give them an understanding of the world and their place within it.

Teachers, in particular, need to address questions about purpose and duty – what is it that they are doing as teachers? What is their job? How do they match their role to please the governance of a college that is (understandably) interested in exam results with their need to impart knowledge to students? And how do teachers match this with their need to design creative, purposeful syllabi that aim to engage young people?

New or inexperienced teachers tend to play it safe by sticking very closely to the exam boards’ guidelines. But often these guidelines are outdated and their recommendations of uninspiring texts like a letter of complaint merely bore young people, especially if they are doing similar texts in every English lesson.

Moreover,  students – irrespective of what level they are at – can tell that the teacher simply photocopied what was on the internet. It is, therefore, an ineffective way of connecting young people with education.

For that reason, I believe that English teachers and FS resources should not focus merely on the exam skills. Such a narrow perspective is detrimental to both students and teachers. Teaching without taking into account young people’s interests is redundant and is likely to create further disengagement.

Functional skills English

Essentially, there are only three things you are doing in a FS English class: helping students to read, write and communicate effectively. In fact, it does not make a great deal of difference what preliminary texts you use to prepare students for the exam. It’s the skills that are tested – not the contents. And as for communications, it is possible to argue that neither teachers nor the examining boards focus too much on speaking and listening skills. This component is viewed as an appendix, added on to the course content and design without much guidance – almost like an afterthought.

So, instead of relying on examining boards' suggestions or going on Skillswise or BBC Bitsize, why not design your own reading and speaking and listening material that is tailor-made to suit your students? Think about knowledge and what our young people lack and then fill that gap with meaningful lesson contents.

Lesson contents

One of the most effective approaches to teaching functional skills English is to keep your lesson contents topical – focusing on subjects that affect us as a country. These could be news items or topics that form our cultural landmarks such as Remembrance Day, Diwali, Guy Fawkes' night, Children in Need, I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!, Brexit, etc.

By adopting such an approach you are doing two things: giving students topical resources and reading material for practising exam skills while simultaneously broadening their knowledge and awareness of the world. Writing your own texts also means you can use the kind of language you would like to home in on, depending on the needs of your groups/students.

Ultimately, although exams and employability skills are important and teachers need to focus on transferable skills, it is equally important to give our young people an education –  with appropriate resources – in order to create an informed generation that understands the complexity of many issues facing our country today.

Dr Roshan Doug is a visiting professor, strategist and educational consultant at the University of Birmingham





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