Secret Lecturer - Colleges can’t afford to reinvent the wheel

Secret Teacher


Colleges can’t afford to reinvent the wheel

The annual Beacon awards for the most innovative work in FE colleges were duly presented at this month’s AoC conference. They were all first-rate projects worthy of the publicity but I wonder how long they will stay on colleges’ radar.
Time and again, I have seen innovative ideas recognised in my own and other colleges disappear into the ether because there is no effective, permanent vehicle to share them with other colleges.
Innovative staff don’t know if they have broken new ground or reinvented the wheel. And yet we could use technology to solve this problem.

‘Sorry, your ideas are not unique’

Colleagues in other colleges often tell me of their shocked reaction when visiting staff working across the sector gently point out that the ideas they have pioneered and consider unique are often not.
It worries me that we don't learn enough from each other and that in education we are still too isolated as individuals and institutions. As teachers, we struggle into a classroom with a bunch of students and shut the door. Yes, we do get considerable support during our probation year but then we’re on our own. Just occasionally inspectors or learning observers will tell us where we are going right or wrong.
As institutions, colleges remain hostage to ministerial views, often based on no educational background other than ‘it worked for me’ and pushing theories that I and many colleagues professionally just don’t believe.

Politicians can’t understand colleges wanting to share

Too many politicians mistakenly think everyone else looks at educational policy from a political standpoint, that they are trying to make a political point as that is the world politicians inhabit themselves.
As a result, politicians suspect and often dismiss innovative, forward-thinking ideas from the sector that are based on long experience of how education does work. With little or no national support or infrastructure, such ideas often never leave a college campus, no one else benefits and much time and resources are wasted by other colleges reinventing the wheel.
Fortunately, platforms like the Beacon awards do offer momentary glimpses of brilliance. This year, for instance, Portsmouth College picked up the Effective Use of Technology award for its ‘Curious and Creative Learning’ project’ – it took them three years of hard graft, trying this, trying that, to embed the use of iPads across all subject areas. Instant feedback from students, more collaboration, more applications,
better attendance and attainment . . . who would seriously not want to learn more? Yet I’ve been told there are few, if any, opportunities for other colleges to do so.

Brilliant youth access work in Glasgow

One earlier winner I’ve heard about came up with a brilliant idea to rekindle interest in learning among young people who had given up on education. In east Glasgow, Kelvin college and community partners have been working together for 10 years on a youth access programme. Through it they have successfully reached out to teenagers in their communities by ignoring college buildings (which can often hold unhappy memories for disenchanted former students) and instead use all manner of community spaces and groups to lay on courses and activities.
What stood out, a colleague told me, was its setting in one of the most deprived inner-city areas in the UK, its sheer scale, and the fact that few staff working outside the local area on similar issues knew about it. She says it’s among the most imaginative FE projects she’s seen. But what if key managers move on, she asks. Will hard-learnt lessons be unlearned

FE staff not free to check out ideas elsewhere

Short-term funding will often only allow a group of colleges to come together on a shared problem for a couple of years, learn from each other and then, when the funding stops, see resources dry up and information sharing cease.
Talk to staff on the ground and they’ll tell you they rarely if ever get the opportunity to go off campus to find out what other colleges are doing. Few senior managers seem able or willing to let their staff off the leash. The AoC conference is a rare example of providing a small platform to promote such work, but the sector needs much more than that.
The truth is we’re not using technology anything like enough. We need an organised system to capture this sort of pioneering work using vehicles like video diaries, blogs, SWOT analyses, and so on – some people will post material online via myriad blogs but unless you are aware of a particular blog on a specific subject, you won’t know it’s there. We need a systematic way of capturing people’s experiences when doing something new to make it easy for others to find.

Sharing through technology has to be way forward

Time is a factor – by the time you have developed a new program, it can be out of date as technology moves on. So let’s use some imagination. Why not invest in a universal system that can instantly inform colleges on resources already invented within and by the sector? Most colleges have quite clever intranet systems but there are so many different types – and very few ‘talk' to each other.
What we need is the ability to link up to a sector-wide repository, a digital resources library or some other system plus a decent budget to set up pilot schemes and then go national. Why keep restarting from scratch?

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