Embedding English has become a high profile topic in the FE sector, driven by a combination of learners’ needs, employment requirements and inspection demands. Colleges all over the UK are working on this, with overarching strategies being devised or reviewed, posts being created and training being provided for classroom practitioners. There is a real energy, drive and passion in colleges for this and in my training/consultancy work, I am constantly impressed and inspired by the eloquence of teachers making the case for embedding English and sharing their creative ways of doing this.
At an organisational level, it is a real challenge to look at the whole picture and identify ways to join up the different aspects of college life that can impact learners’ development in English. From my own college experience and subsequent consultancy work, I can see that these are some of the pieces of the jigsaw:
- Initial advice and guidance along with course information This is important for making the role and value of English skills clear when selling the course/institution. English skills need to be highlighted clearly in the course information with their vocational value noted so that learners see where they fit into the programme. We need to keep fighting this perception that they are an additional aspect of learning as opposed to integral to vocational and HE preparation for the future of the learner. We need to sell the way college study will be different from English at school.
- Diagnostic assessments of English skills and the subsequent communication of this information and its implications to key staff. I am seeing plenty of communication and comprehension challenges hobbling this process. Non-specialist staff I meet often comment that they either don’t have access to this information or don’t feel confident to interpret it and use it in planning. Some staff bemoan the fact that the assessments are technology heavy and that free writing, speaking and listening don’t figure in that process, creating an incomplete or skewed picture of the learners’ skills.
- Roles of learning support teams, tutors and classroom assistants in supporting students’ development in English. This is often not discussed or refined adequately and some people tell me they end up working in silos as opposed to collaborating well with curriculum teams. Interesting to note that I am delivering bespoke training for embedding English in colleges every week but nobody has asked me to develop the skills of this group of staff yet.
- Building relationships and enabling collaboration between specialist (GCSE and FS) and vocational teams, so they can reflect, liaise, share resources and approaches together. In training sessions when I meet these staff, I note a great deal of interest in this form of collaboration and clear-sighted views on the benefits of this for learners. It would be very positive to build some cross college collaboration slots into staff development time and team meetings and create online sharing opportunities on staff intranets. We have a great deal of expertise in embedding English in colleges, but we need to join up the pieces more effectively to harness this. There are many ways to do this but management teams in colleges are often focused on bringing in external training and neglect the harnessing of in house expertise as part of the ongoing development work. Bringing in a guru for a training day probably won’t change the way English gets embedded but using them as stimulus and then harnessing in house follow-up and implementation steps just might. Learning to embed English well is a long-term process involving reflection, change and collaboration for many staff. It is not a quick fix, sorted on CPD day with a one-hit training roll out.
- The role of the learning resource centres and ILT teams in devising resources and activities that can support skills development for learners. In the most dynamic college settings, I hear of reading challenges, reading clubs, study skills workshops and proof reading sessions operating in learning resource centres. ILT teams can provide great expertise in sourcing apps and games and links that allow learners to practise grammar, reading or listening outside lessons. They can collaborate with curriculum teams to enhance schemes for learning, develop flipped learning activities and devise materials for stretch and support with a focus on English skills. I meet a great number of passionate and creative ILT staff who see the value of this collaboration and are looking for opportunities to make it happen. Sometimes they just don’t have a clear channel of communication with the curriculum teams or the opportunity to work as in house consultants in this way. Inviting the ILT team into a curriculum team meeting to discuss your needs and their options for support could be a good place to start.
In my own work in this area, I am noticing that colleges are often struggling to look at embedding English as a whole organisation approach requiring joined up thinking. When I am called in to deliver some training for classroom practitioners, the specialist staff (GCSE and Functional Skills) are often separated from the vocational teachers. Tutors, student coaches or mentors, the classroom assistants and learning support staff are rarely in attendance or sometimes not even invited. It seems to me that the biggest impacts on learners’ mindset and skills with English will come from a joined up approach, harnessing all the expertise we have in our colleges. For training sessions, there are huge benefits in bringing staff with a range of roles together to share issues, challenges, approaches and activities, as this creates deeper understanding of the bigger picture and enables creative thinking from a range of perspectives. This needs to be followed up with long-term, cross college collaboration, reflection activities and processes, if we are to create any lasting, substantial improvements to the way we embed English.
For managers and leaders, this means taking a big look at the way the institution works on embedding English and starting to identify pieces of the jigsaw that need to be brought together. Some useful questions to discuss could be:
- How do we promote English skills at advice and guidance stages?
- How effectively do our diagnostic processes identify learners’ skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening?
- How well is diagnostic information being used in planning and delivery?
- Where is there expertise in our institution for embedding English and how are we harnessing that?
- How can we foster powerful, regular collaboration between key staff, to enhance the learners’ development of English?
- How can technology help us with this, as staff and as learners?
- Where do we have specific training needs and how can we follow up the training with ongoing implementation activities?
- Where are the channels of communication between different parts of the strategy for embedding English? Who needs to know what and when for this work to be more effective for the students?