Further Education sector in jeopardy

Issue date: 17 November 2005

Issue date: 17/11/05

A groundbreaking study investigating teaching and learning in the Further Education (FE) sector in the UK has hard hitting messages for the government following hot on the heels of the release of the Foster Report on FE presented at the Association for Colleges conference earlier this week.

Better funding, greater professional autonomy and fewer government led prescriptive mandates are just a few of the radical changes identified as critical to the future of FE in the largest ever research project conducted in this area.

Entitled Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education, the four year study was carried out by a consortium involving researchers at four Universities (West of England, Bristol (UWE), Exeter, Warwick and Leeds), and four FE colleges (City of Bristol, St Austell [Cornwall College], Park Lane in Leeds and City College in Coventry). It shows that teaching and learning in the FE sector is under threat because of unstable national policy, inadequate funding and narrow models of management. It also indicates that the professionalism of tutors and managers is being progressively undermined.

Professor David James from the Faculty of Education at UWE underlines the report findings; he said ‘Our research is the first of its kind – a large, independent, rigorous study that included FE practitioners at every stage, even during design. The report points to a desperate need for a new approach to the improvement of teaching and learning in the FE sector. In place of the one-size-fits-all approach we keep seeing in policy at the moment, this would use research-derived principles to guide development. It is clear that simplistic ideas about ‘what works’, together with crude measures of retention and learning outcomes, are not up to the job.’

‘The FE sector caters for lots of people who do not have much of a voice in the power structures in society. It is also very comprehensive, in ways that can be difficult to understand for people only familiar with schools and higher education. In an FE college it is not unusual to find the most recreational of courses next door to the most vocationally-focused, or study at a very high vocational level adjacent to basic skills or academic study at a range of levels’.

The study used a large questionnaire survey but took as its main focus a series of ‘learning sites’ based in four FE colleges. Through repeated interviews, observations, shadowing and diaries it built up detailed pictures of different learning cultures, the factors that shaped them, and how they allowed or inhibited different kinds of learning.

Professor James continues, ‘We have strong evidence that FE tutors are hemmed in by targets, with a narrow set of definitions used to measure the quality of their work, and that this is stifling their energy and enthusiasm and also their performance and effectiveness. Our research shows that good teaching can be one thing in one place, but quite different in another. Learning itself is defined quite differently within different educational provision, and legitimately so. But we also found that improving learning has to be about more than the how, about more than just trying to make it more effective. In other words, any attempt to improve learning also has to wrangle with what is being learnt and whether it is valuable and to whom’.

Whilst recognising some major issues of social inequality that surround FE practices, the research concludes that there are four main drivers for improvement within the FE sector. They are (a) taking student interests more seriously; (b) recognising and supporting tutor professionalism; (c) fostering diversity in teaching approaches; (d) taking a cultural understanding of learning – that is, not seeing learning as something that is only about individuals and their acquisition of new knowledge and skills. Professor James adds ‘Our findings have great practical significance, and also the capacity to put more flesh on the bones of the government’s policy of promoting ‘personalised learning’. More important, we have evidence that a lot of good teaching and learning is currently surviving against the odds, in unsustainable circumstances. This situation has to change, and soon’

Project website: http://www.ex.ac.uk/education/tlc
Project summary briefing available from David.James@uwe.ac.uk


Editor’s notes

‘Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education’ was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP).

Main contact - Professor David James, Faculty of Education, University of the West of England, Bristol. Tel. 0117 328 4215. E-mail David.James@uwe.ac.uk

The research team comprised 30 people, of whom 20 were FE tutors. It was directed by five people:
Phil Hodkinson, University of Leeds
Gert Biesta, University of Exeter
Denis Gleeson, University of Warwick
David James, University of the West of England, Bristol
Keith Postlethwaite, University of Exeter

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