Secret Lecturer: ‘No failure’ policy is devaluing 16-19 provision

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As my college cranks up for another full-on summer term, I hope the government’s promised public spending review will bring good news for our hard-pressed sector. What worries me is that this will be for spending in 2020-21; we have another full year to work through on existing budgets that seem to be increasingly shored up by the all too pervasive culture of ‘no failure’.

When I started teaching in FE, learning through failing was a hard and valuable lesson all our students received in preparation for their next career move, be it job, apprenticeship or degree course. Part of our task was - and always has been - to guide them through their mistakes and failures. And we’ve always felt we have been doing them a disservice if we let some things slip and they are not achieving what they set out to do. But if you don't even acknowledge in a person when they have failed I think they are missing out on some crucial valuable instructions when they enter the workplace. 

Focus on not losing students

Over the last couple of years – and yes it's mainly down to government ‘austerity’ cuts – colleges have increasingly focused on not losing students - dwindling head counts mean dwindling funds, it’s that simple. Retain as many of your cohorts as you can for the next year and the funding is in the bag, but lose students and the government claws back funding. 

So now we are increasingly seeing students who have not achieved the course standards or just scraped by waved on to the next year or level; earlier they would either have looked for another more suitable course elsewhere or in the same college. The students need an incentive to raise their game; in BTEC courses we used to say they needed a ‘merit’ grade overall to progress to the next level. Funding needs mean that that incentive no longer works and there has been a drop in quality.

You can have a level 1 student who now only needs to get a pass to go up to level 2 resulting in a cohort in level 2 that is quite weak. And the same thing happens from level 2 to level three. The students are not achieving the standards required - they’ve not done the work for whatever reason and yet go through. It’s that simple.

A constant conversation topic

I’ve seen colleagues working harder for the students’ qualifications than the students themselves! If we carry on with that philosophy students will enter the workforce with very, very poor skills. They are not learning the essential lessons that you gain from failing and then using that experience as a basis to progress your career. 

The creeping ‘no failure’ policy is a constant conversation topic among FE teachers. We understand our colleges are firstly educational institutions and secondly businesses. Many senior managers have been forced to see them it as a business first and foremost.

So how do we solve this dilemma? As usual, first, there has to be more government investment. Aside from providing a route via A-levels to degree courses, the sector has a crucial post-Brexit role to play in training students in key trades such as electricians, plumbers and builders. At current FE salary levels, colleges are hard pushed to recruit and then retain quality lecturers in these areas and particularly STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).

Education often lags behind society

The actual courses are getting devalued. I used to be involved in running a yearly outward bound activity as part of the course I was teaching. As funding dropped we had to become creative in finding ways to finance such trips, asking parents to contribute toward costs, using student bursary money in enterprising ways, but growing pressure each year has made the whole fundraising process become increasingly tiresome as we have had to spend more and more of our time focusing on fund-raising to make the trips  .

Secondly, education has to keep up to date with the economy and society - and sadly it is often lagging behind. My college has done a good job — status, organisation and the actual look of our classrooms fit modern needs. But woe betide colleges where some teachers may still prefer the old pattern of students sitting in rows, learning by rote from a lecturer spouting facts from the front, and all working towards memory-based exams at the end, created skills that used to work in repetitive production processes. 

Making mistakes and problem-solving

Today’s society is far more complex and much more about solving problems, being innovative and being able to make mistakes in a safe environment yet knowing you have made that mistake because you are trying to solve something. As teachers, we can do a much better job across the board in innovating and upping our game in how we deliver.

Why would students just come in to gather information when they can sit at home and do the same thing? What is the difference in coming into the classroom now? What is the different content you want to give them? Today’s students live in a society where they collaborate with each other based on a teamwork ethos influenced by the spread of social media. They want to connect in a certain way. 

We have to let students learn through failure and then progress. A colleague told me when her scene of crime class made key mistakes by not adding evidence tags to bagged materials, they learnt not just through being harangued but more importantly, through feedback about why an evidence tag is so important - they discovered through learning. There has to be more of a culture of failing in order to learn. 

Parameters and boundaries

Another colleague told me how important it was to get to know the students and let them know you before expecting them to respect the parameters and boundaries set by teachers. Doing so many press-ups if you were later for class, forgot your pen, let your phone ring in class and so on worked well for her sports students - and the teacher followed the same rules! Cleaning up the workshop after a practical session in vehicle maintenance worked well was a sanction for mechanical engineering students. It was horses for courses. 

If colleges do not remain consistent and allow a ‘no failure’ policy, more students will start to whisper among themselves: “We are not going to be failed, we’ll get through anyway…” The sector simply cannot afford to let that happen, funding or no funding.

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