Can you believe the Autumn Term is here already? Sadly, I can barely remember my summer break because the majority of its benefits have now been eradicated!
We start this term now with plenty of controversy – the exams fiasco regarding GCSE results and the Labour Party attack on Free Schools. The latter is only politics and let’s face it, did we really expect the Labour Party to approve of the Gove agenda? The former, however, is more serious because it may suggest a level of interference in the examination process. I was a Chief Examiner for many years, albeit in Mathematics rather than English, but I would suggest that I never saw examinations which were exactly on par with previous series. Neither did I worry too much because the results were ‘norm’ tested. In other words, once all the results were collected, the top 10% achieved A grade etc. Perhaps if this strategy was used, the whole problem could have been avoided?
Why did the English GCSE issue arise in the first place? I wonder, crucially, if it was because of the ever constant criticism that GCSEs are getting easier. That debate is generally boring, unjustified and serves only to demotivate teachers and students alike! It is interesting, however, to note the comments from employers that young people, particularly at age 16, lack ‘employability skills’ - and knowledge of business and industry. Something does need to be done about that but should employers be surprised? I bet if we carried out a survey of teachers in schools then the majority would have careers involving university, teacher training and school teaching. No wonder therefore that ‘employability skills’ are lacking. Neither am I demeaning the teachers in our schools – they have a hard enough job involving crowd control from some of my observations - but it does suggest an opportunity for FE.
How many of you remember ‘Increased flexibility’ or, really going back in time, ‘TVEI’? If you remember both then you are dated and as old as I but they were both initiatives that enabled 14-16 year olds to engage in vocational study – and they were successful. The success was down to the involvement of Further Education Colleges and also due to the fact that the local authority ring-fenced the money for that purpose. Now, with delegated budgets, many schools choose not to purchase this expertise or mistakenly think they can do it better. Notice that I don’t mention the unmitigated disaster of Diplomas and I can’t bring myself to even discuss the obscene learning associated with the initiative. What I do suggest to you is that the 14-16 agenda for Further Education, which will come into being from next August, is a major opportunity for us all. That doesn’t mean direct competition with schools but it does mean a chance to carry out some specialist 14-16 work which is desperately needed.
In my College in North Somerset, there are exciting developments occurring both within the College and the partnering schools and academies. The GCSE results at the schools are both improved and, in some cases, impressive. There are building developments at most schools and extensive works at the College. The latter includes a new wing on an ever-growing Sixth Form, a new centre for Performing Arts and huge investment in Construction and Engineering, including Motor Vehicle engineering. I consider it a really good picture because, despite the economy, the schools and College are working together to develop outstanding learning opportunities.
I will close my article this month with reference to learners with learning difficulties and disabilities. The Government proposals are for the monies associated with such learners to be handed over to local authorities who will then set the agenda for the future. It is a new agenda which will place significant risk and accountability upon a local authority and the need for relevant authorities and their partners to work together on such a strategy is paramount. The idea is that the local authority will be able to concentrate on quality and value for money simultaneously and it can work if it is collaborative. In North Somerset we have a collaborative agenda through a dynamic North Somerset Partnership and excellent support from the LEP, EFA and SFA. Wherever you are, get this in place!
Let’s look forward to a highly successful Autumn Term for everyone involved with teaching and learning.
Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare