Secret Lecturer: ‘Wannabe’ students who can’t make the grade

Published: 21 Mar 2018

Secret Teacher

Dealing with students who ‘don’t want to be there’ is hard enough (Secret Lecturer, January 16, 2018), but what do you do about students who do want to be there but just aren’t up to it – they have literally ‘peaked’ at level 2?

Now is the time of year when colleges start focusing on next year’s intake. Which students should they keep on – or let go – for the second year of level 3 (A-level equivalent) courses? It can be a heart-breaking time both for lecturers and students. 

Sifting out second-year certs and probables

All young people have to stay in education till they reach 18. The choice is which students are likely to pass and thus continue into the second final year and which ones just can't hack the academic work. Level 3s like A-levels are tough and academically taxing. So should many students be making better use of their remaining time at college by switching to something less academic or moving onto another college with more suitable courses? 

The biggest problem is normally posed by those who reach their academic peak early on and maybe just scrape through their level 2 exams (GCSE equivalent). This is where funding formulas can wreak havoc. For every student on a level 3 course, my college receives £4,000 in funding per year of study. It’s a numbers game based on a big spreadsheet list of all students that gives the user no clue about past performance or circumstances. Anyone passing their level 2s, even by the thinnest of margins, is entered as qualified to go on to level 3s. 

Funding system that only counts heads

By this time, most lecturers have a pretty clear idea of who should stay on but we are not allowed a say – the funding system gives colleges no other choice. The result is, of course, that life gets tougher and tougher for struggling students and university is worse. But if you scrape through level 3s with three ‘Ps’ – the lowest pass rate – many universities will still take you. 

Result? Many students will be out of their depth in their first year and drop out. (Funnily enough, figures for drop-out rates are not easily available). Meanwhile, universities will have taken around £9,000 in first-year tuition fees, and colleges £8,000 for a two-year level 3 course. And often it’s all on the back of a false pretence that these struggling students will gain a degree. 

There are occasional exceptions and that’s why I work in FE – supporting students who have failed work their way through levels 2, 3 and 4 and then maybe go on to university. We had a female student who passed her maths GCSE at the umteenth attempt. We were delighted for her, she was a real trier, went on to take level 3 and now has a good job. 

‘I’ve got no higher than a D – so not again!”

The sad thing is we have no records of the students who don’t progress to level 3 and then leave us to go elsewhere until they reach 18. No one seems to care. They will have failed GCSEs at school, and then struggled with GCSE maths and English resits and level 2s at college. “I’ve got no higher than a D in several attempts at maths – I don’t want to do it again” is a common response caused by the government’s compulsory resits policy.

The only means of stopping this funding merry-go-round that pushes so many students onto courses beyond their abilities and into eventual Neet status (not in education, employment or training) is either radical reform (not likely at present) or finding other ways to employ them. So many find the transition from level 2 to 3 and 4 so hard they can't do it, or they don’t realise the benefit of this chance to progress, or simply don’t want to.

We have lost most of our big factories, mines and car plants that used to take on young people seeking unskilled work. Apprenticeships are a great option but the snag is tracking down employers able – and willing – to invest a lot of time in taking on unskilled beginners. Meanwhile, many of the menial full-time jobs available are zero hours contracts in a shop, stacking shelves or working in places like huge online distribution warehouses and call centres which don’t pay well.

Parental skills as an official curriculum subject?

So how can we help these students who have ‘peaked’? Our challenge as lecturers is to pick them up and educate them – most come to us because they have failed their GCSEs – maybe they were ill on the day and missed the exam, just didn’t take the exam or flunked it due to lack of revision, or just found it too hard.

How about national service? A reintroduction is probably stretching it too far but it was the route in the old days when young people could find out where their strengths lay. The problem is that they are not academic and there are too few apprenticeship opportunities to go round.

There is no easy answer for Neets, many of whom later realise they have to get skilled and return to college for access courses to careers like nursing and teaching. But one way to reduce those ’wasted’ years for so many between college and their later return to education is to lobby for the introduction of early parental skills to the school curriculum. It’s been proved that children who can read and write before they reach school have an enormous advantage over those who don’t. So why not make it official?

FE teaching is a vocation just like nursing

At the other end, our job is to motivate and educate, regardless. It’s about setting students targets, getting them to take one step at a time. Focus them on one assignment, check out the marking criteria in front of you and tailor the work you set accordingly.

True, education can’t guarantee everyone’s success or we’d all be degree-holding, academic millionaires. But let’s not forget that FE teaching is a vocation just like nursing. We want to send people out better than when they came in. If one person has failed their GCSEs and then slowly or suddenly ‘gets it,’ and goes on to university, that must surely be one of our ultimate goals.

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