For most people Further Education (FE) – is an invisible realm of education. Many schoolteachers know little about what it is; few would have the goal to work in the sector. Compared to Higher Education or teaching at A-level, it is perceived as something of a poor relation.
While the practical side of FE – in effect the world of, what many years ago were, technical colleges – attracts many skilled and enthusiastic lecturers across the wonderful array of subjects offered to 16-18 year olds (through BTEC and the new T Level courses), there is a problem when it comes to core subjects. Currently, many diplomas expect learners to achieve a Grade 4 in GCSE Maths and English – the equivalent of a pass. Learners step into FE often precisely because they are not academically strong; many have failed these subjects at school, and are asked to retake them. They have to do to this until they are 18 – so this can mean three years of studying core subjects they loathe. Sadly, many are so far off a pass grade that success seems remote.
Teaching Maths and English in FE, then, is going to be a challenge, to put it mildly. The problems are many: learners have inbuilt resistance to the subjects owing to failing in the past and to negative classroom experiences; they do not understand why they have to do the subjects in the first place; repeated failure creates a cycle of lack of self-belief. In addition, the GCSE syllabus, especially for English, seems geared to higher-ability learners: why, they ask, do we have to analyse the use of language devices in a piece of nineteenth-century fiction? What use is that to us? Inside, a teacher may well agree with them.
All this indicates why so much negativity surrounds this kind of teaching, especially when behaviour issues are added: some learners may be in FE because they have to be in education until they are 18 and this is the only place for them. From that, however, emerges the plus side.
Strange as it may sound, expectations have to be low, sometimes. Yes, we want the best for our learners, but here there will be many weeks when the goals are basic: get them to attend, to listen, to see the classroom as a positive space. Be ready for weeks when little if nothing will appear to be learned: if you stick with this, as the year progresses some learners will start to flower, and this brings enormous satisfaction.
How do we do this? How do we handle these often bored and frustrated learners? To begin with, acknowledge them as adults, or young adults. Too often the friendly greeting, the real interest in these learners, who they are and their lives, is forgotten. You don’t need to be a friend, but you do need to be a friendly and an approachable adult they feel happy to talk to, someone in whose presence they can relax. The classroom should feel a comfortable place, as much as possible free of tension and conflict – which was probably not the case during their previous classroom experience.
To some extent Maths and English lecturers in FE need to be youth support workers – working to build self-esteem and positivity, a sense that progress is possible. When this solid base has been built, then the technical side of learning can begin. Only then, if the learners have become demotivated and negative, will things begin to change. The rewards are immense: I have seen a learner working at Level 2 suddenly jump to a 4 at the end of the year after months of support and consistency from the tutor; I have seen a learner with behavioural problems, again after consistent calmness, positivity and friendliness, come in to class and start to do their best in writing, keen for feedback.
So FE may be the forgotten sector, but it shouldn’t be. If you can see your role as being beyond teaching Maths or English, instead being a presence who can make people feel better about themselves through the progress they make, however small, then FE is the place for you. As someone who has taught in universities and a private school, I often find the work more fulfilling than either of those.
I wonder how many out there, given the chance, would be the same?