Stephen Lambert, Director of Education4Democracy.

Some colleges need to up their game if they’re to give young people the opportunities they deserve. STEPHEN LAMBERT says colleges and sixth forms can boost students’ grades – and get more working-class youngsters into university.

ALTHOUGH most further education colleges and school sixth forms in the North East of England are doing their best to meet the needs of students and boosting academic standards, there still remains evidence of “bad practice”, in some institutions.

According to the latest annual Ofsted report, about 3 out 10 general FE colleges have been deemed in need of significant improvement or worse ‘inadequate’.

Some key schools and colleges like Gateshead or Bishop Auckland don’t fall into this category and have been awarded ‘outstanding grades’ by inspectors. But the picture is both varied and patchy.

The key issue appears to be the standard of teaching and learning, as well as the quality of college leadership and operational management. These institutions need to adopt creative teaching and learning strategies alongside better management and a clearer focus to achieve good or outstanding results in GCE A-levels – the passport to top universities.

Teachers need to be fully qualified and experienced in their subject specialisms. Too often it’s the case that teacher in academies and colleges, are delivering their second subject at A-level, which clearly disadvantages the learner. This won’t do at all. Students at 16 and 17 expect their tutors to be subject specialists and possess substantial experience.

Likewise it’s essential that teachers possess solid vocational expertise, acquired through the world of work, outside the classroom, when delivering subjects such as sociology, government, business or media studies,

The idea of Michael Grove, former Education Secretary, that we return to the ‘rote learning’ of the 1950s, to boost standards is misplaced. These didactic methods, in the main, left thousands bored rigid, especially in the old secondary moderns, designed for those who failed their 11-plus.

Too often these lessons resembled a scene from the 1960s sci-fi movie Village of the Damned, with dull, uninspiring teachers talking at rows of passive pupils, who daren’t ask a question! Contrary to popular belief, there was no ‘golden age’ of improvement in standards throughout the fifties.

Lessons need to be student-centred and supported by well tested traditional methods –a health balance of learning techniques and strategies.

Effective planning of lessons, a passion for the subject by the tutor, and the use of praise for less able learners needs to be implemented in mixed-ability classes. Skilled and experienced teachers are able to probe deeper, to tease out prior learning, knowledge and understanding as well as the skills of critical analysis. Teachers need to take on board what educationalists refer to as ‘’differentiation strategies’’, to effectively meet the needs of all learners.

Enrichment activities, through the use of high quality guest speakers and educational visits, should be at the heart of any self-respected arts, humanities, business and social sciences programme. Get the experts in from the real world to make lessons interesting and to provoke critical thought.

Many forward-looking institutions on Tyneside have fully embraced 21st century technologies, such as e-learning and virtual learning to make students more independent.

So what is the way forward overall to get all post-16 students the top grades that their peers in private schools seem to gain with relative ease?

One, college and sixth form tutors and their leaders, working in disadvantaged neighbourhood, need to ‘’disseminate and share good practice’’ and resources.

Two, all tutors should engage in Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and subject support meetings.

Three, teachers and team leaders need to become assistant examiners in their subject to grasp what the examination boards are looking for.

Four, effective team leadership and collaborative work produces happy staff and contented learners.

Five, revision sessions in the Easter holidays need to be an integral component of any A-level programme, with an emphasis on ‘personalised learning’.

Rather than burdening already stretched teachers bring in retirees with experience to do this. And pay them for the marking that has to be done in relation to end of year internal exams.

Some of our top Russell Group universities in the Northern region are quite willing to open up opportunities for disadvantaged youngsters. FE leaders need to take advantage of these, so that we can boost the number of working-class students entering university.

Although more young people than ever are going into higher education at 18, working class men in particular with no family history of university aren’t.

If we’re serious about creating a more meritocratic, socially mobile and fairer society, more young people from poor home backgrounds need to be encouraged to take up the ‘life-chance’ enhancing opportunities provided by a university education.

Councillor Stephen Lambert has had 30 year of hands- on experience in further education. He writes in a personal capacity.

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