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It's a proud FE tradition – people getting together to set things up themselves. Tutor Voices is the most recent case and if LSRN is any kind of example, it has long future ahead of it. The Further Education Research Network, as it was originally called, was set up in 1997, by some fifteen people participating in what seemed a rather avant-garde workshop at the time, on 'Research in FE'. The topic seemed remote from most practitioners' lives, the province of universities in the main. Both practitioners and academics were represented at the workshop and the first meeting of the volunteer group established a founding principle that the Network should straddle both communities and foster collaboration between the two.
At this first meeting other principles were expounded which have guided the Network ever since. It was to be based across the regions of the country, not just in London; local volunteers would convene events in each region. National coordination would be through a planning group of these convenors. No official positions were created; action rather than office-holding was to drive activity. The first conference, hosted by Blackpool and the Fylde College in a smart Blackpool hotel demonstrated that research in FE really did exist and that plenty of people seemed keen to engage with it (around 150 at the first conference). Ruth Silver and Bob Fryer gave encouraging speeches and academics and practitioners presented the results of their research in parallel workshops.The commitment of convenors and planning group members ensured the sustained growth of the Network thereafter, based on founding principles that have endured. The Network became an important asset for the newly created Further Education Development Agency (FEDA) which gave increasing levels of support to it. FEDA's regional officers gave time to support groups around the country and funding was provided for several years for collaborative research involving colleges and universities in each region. A series of training modules was developed to help local groups develop their research capacity. National conferences grew in size and stature (around 350 participants at its zenith) and regional workshops flourished. With an altered name to reflect wider changes in the sector the Learning Skills Research Network became a conduit for major initiatives in the nineties and noughties, including the ESRC Teaching Learning Research Programme (TLRP) and Learning Skills Research Centre.But perhaps the most important quality of LSRN has proved to be its resilience over the long term. Having established itself firmly, from the very beginning, as an independent network – not a constituted body, not dependent on central grants, not serving the interests of any officials – it proved able to adapt to each erratic gust of the political wind. The abolition of LSDA and consequent loss of support simply inspired the original enthusiasts, plus others who had joined in, to re-group. A smaller programme was planned and sponsors sought to support each activity. It turned out that having an independent and respected Network in place in our highly fragmented sector proved useful and many organisations were glad to help it along – among them NIACE, City Guilds, Edexcel/Pearson, LSIS, IfL, HEA, ETF and NFER. With their support, a National Planning Group was opened up to all who wanted to be active and volunteer convenors identified wherever possible. Conferences continued to be held, developing latterly into thematic workshops, a website (https://lsrn.wordpress.com/about/) was constructed and a newsletter created.With an eye to the future, it's worth reflecting a moment on which of the many aspects of the LSRN experience have been key to its success. Naturally, people involved have different views about this, so what follows is entirely personal. After decades of steady, developmental support during the 70s and 80s through the work of the Further Education Unit and FE Staff College, the sector was plunged into decades of whimsical and transient change which seriously damaged the environment needed for steady, evidence-based development. Lacking foreknowledge of the policy mayhem to come, the founders of LSRN had little idea how effective and enduring their strategy would turn out to be. By insisting on independence from any particular funder and emphasising collaborative forms of activity that engage all parties interested in research and its use, the Network has outlived almost all other FE-related organisations. It draws on people's deeper motivation: their concern to develop practice, their commitment to sound evidence and their will to work with others for the greater good. Long may such organisations prosper!
Andrew Morris a member of the LSRN National Planning Group and is the author of 'Getting to Grips with Science: A Fresh Approach for the Curious. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/schools/life-the-universe-and-everything-dr-morriss-alternative-science-class-for-the-curious-adult-10248158.html?origin=internalSearch)'
Amid all the challenges of the new academic year, there is one new responsibility likely to continue to sit slightly uneasily with college principals and head teachers. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which came into force over the summer, puts a new statutory duty on academic institutions to "prevent people from being drawn into terrorism". The Act introduced the Prevent Duty for all FE colleges, adult education providers and independent learning providers with SFA funding, or with over 250 students enrolled. Ofsted are already including an assessment of its implementation in their inspections, which includes an obligation for staff to be Prevent Duty trained.
The agenda has been fuelled by a number of high profile cases, including the so-called Trojan horse case, an alleged plot by hard-line Islamists to take over a number of schools in Birmingham in 2014. The case of Talha Asmal from Dewsbury, reportedly the youngest British Muslim to die in a suicide bombing earlier this year at just 17 years old, is similarly just one of several examples of young people being swayed to travel to Syria and Iraq to fight for extremist causes.
But what can traditional learning institutions really do to deliver a genuine impact on such a culturally sensitive aspect of educational life? In some communities the Prevent Duty is perceived as an unwelcome and unnecessary form of "spying" on learners. Similarly, can we really expect teachers and trainers to be experts in spotting and acting upon genuine radicalisation traits amongst learners? Whilst there are sources of help available (the EFA's website (http://www.preventforfeandtraining.org.uk/) contains some useful material), best practice in this field is still emerging.
A source of potential inspiration comes from a seemingly unlikely destination – the city of Aarhus in Denmark. It is claimed that over 30 young people travelled to Syria from Aarhus in 2013 but, following the introduction of the "Aarhus Model", only 3 are reported to have attempted the same since then. The success cannot be attributed to a singular magic solution. It is instead borne out of a working co-operation between the local authority, the police, university, probation services, as well as the local Muslim community itself. The model offers a mix of mentoring and counselling to help participants consider their life choices and to re-integrate with education and employment.
It will be fascinating to see Ofsted's early assessment findings of how inspected institutions have handled the Prevent Duty. In this respect, preventing radicalisation would not seem to be solved by providing teachers with covert surveillance skills, implementing convoluted diagnostics to score those "at risk", or developing potentially patronising programmes on how to be "more British". Instead, it seems more about the application of considered safeguarding processes, a pragmatic eye for genuinely disturbing behaviours, an open dialogue between teachers and other agencies, and a focus on building stable and rewarding educational and vocational pathways for learners.
Jim Carley is Managing Director of Carley Consult (http://www.carleyconsult.com/), a specialist business development agency supporting the skills and employability sectors
Look around the average campus today and it's likely you'll find provision for people with physical disabilities, such as ramps for wheelchairs and walking aids.
But what about those disabilities you can't see, like dyslexia and Asperger's? Invisible or unknown disabilities can create barriers to success in learning, and sometimes remain undiscovered for years: it's not uncommon for learners to be diagnosed with a difficulty only when they continue into further education (FE) or higher education (HE).These disabilities are often far reaching. To take print impairments as an example – an umbrella term for a range of barriers to reading print, including dyslexia, learning difficulties and problems that prevent the learner from actually holding a device to read or turning pages – it's estimated about 10% of people in the UK fall into this category. Taking those who have English as an additional language into consideration, the number having difficulty accessing print materials could be as high as 25%.Technology enabling inclusive practiceIt's crucial you make sure that content and materials for learners is as diverse and varied as the students themselves.Inclusive practice is essentially providing content that is accessible to as many people as possible, ensuring that a diverse range of students can use, access and contribute to content in a meaningful way.Technology is a significant enabler in supporting inclusive practice. It offers a range of alternatives to printed text and supports better collaboration and sharing to improve the inclusivity of your learning resources, helping students with disabilities to access the curriculum.Here are my top tips to using technology to support learners with invisible disabilities.
Provide transcripts – audio and video content can be difficult for learners with hearing impairments to access. Providing transcripts gives them another way to access this content.
Think about structure – well-structured documents that use built in heading styles are much easier to navigate for all users and in particular students with a print impairment. They provide an interactive contents list that benefits everyone. Microsoft office applications (https://www.microsoft.com/enable/products/office2010/)now have an accessibility checker that helps to create more accessible content. Make sure you know of these features and how to enable them
Make use of supporting software – creating non-standard learning materials for students with vision or hearing problems doesn't have to be timely or costly. Check out some of the free and paid-for applications available that can be used to widen access to the curriculum. AudioNote (https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/audionote-notepad-voice-recorder/id369820957?mt=8) is a good example of an app offering a combined notepad and voice recorder to capture lectures and easily listen back to a particular point in the recording – great for dyslexic learners who can find written note taking frustrating and distracting. Apps that are compatible with sound enhancing features when you listen back can also be a major enabler for deaf students.
Create learning content that can be reframed – some people with disabilities find the format of learning materials is the biggest barrier to being able to access them. If they can use a different device or medium then barriers are reduced or even removed. For example, listening to a written document read out loud can be just as effective as reading for some students.
Make resources available online, on time – providing 'just in time' information on online learning platforms supports learners with disabilities to access all the content they need, in formats most useful to them, at any time. Virtual learning environment (VLE) with up-to-date information allow students to go back and recheck content if they think they might either have missed or misheard.
Use technology to support collaboration – working with others is a crucial employability skill and provides opportunities for deep learning and developing and testing of ideas, but sometimes disabled students can find this difficult to do, particularly those with social disabilities such as autism. Where users are confident in using technology, this can lay a good foundation and give them assurances to support their interactions with fellow learners and in turn develop their interpersonal skills.
Lisa Featherstone is a subject specialist at Jisc, which provides digital solutions for UK education and research
The subject of Apprenticeships is once again firmly on the government's agenda and an area where there has been recent reform with proposals for more to come. We have summarised below the recent changes and proposals, but first here's a reminder as to what apprenticeships are and the different ways further education (FE) colleges can engage apprentices.
Apprenticeships – a summary
Often a useful form of engagement for FE Colleges, an apprenticeship is essentially a form of engagement which offers employment with training. An apprenticeship arrangement is usually for a fixed term and/or until an agreed level of qualification is reached.
Apprenticeships can often enable the FE Colleges that offer them a degree of input into the training of an individual, but with the added benefit of the apprentice's training element of the apprenticeship usually being fully or partially government funded. There are also lower National Minimum Wage rates applicable to apprentices in their first year which makes the economics of the arrangement more attractive.
Forms of engagement
All apprentices are employees. However, since 2009 there have been two ways in which an apprentice can be employed:
1. Under a 'traditional' contract of apprenticeship (Traditional Apprenticeship) or,2. Under an apprenticeship agreement (which satisfies the requirements under the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009) (Apprenticeship Agreement).
The most important distinction between the two is that a Traditional Apprenticeship is governed not only by employment legislation, (for example, the right to bring an unfair dismissal claim would apply, provided the apprentice has been employed for the requisite length of service), but also by common law principles. The common law principles in this regard dictate that because the primary purpose of a Traditional Apprenticeship is to provide training for the apprentice (doing work for the employer being secondary), apprenticeships involve greater responsibilities for employers than ordinary contracts of employment do. As a result, apprentices under such agreements cannot usually be made redundant and can only be dismissed for misconduct and capability, if express and clear terms in the contract allow this. Even then, the bar is higher than that for dismissing an ordinary employee.
The consequences of prematurely terminating an apprentice's engagement under a Traditional Apprenticeship is that the apprentice could bring a breach of contract claim for which they could be entitled for enhanced damages, including compensation for loss of wages, loss of training and loss of status.
By contrast, apprentices employed under Apprenticeship Agreements do not have the greater rights of the common law Traditional Apprenticeship, merely standard employment rights.
Therefore, since their introduction in 2009, engaging apprentices via an Apprenticeship Agreement has been preferable for the employer. However, to satisfy the definition of an Apprenticeship Agreement, certain prescribed terms must be included and importantly the apprenticeship must be in connection with a 'qualifying apprenticeship framework'.
Approved English Apprenticeship agreements
Following a government review, it was considered that the Apprenticeship Agreement was too prescriptive and inflexible. As a result, on 26 May 2015, a new concept of 'Approved English Apprenticeship Agreements' (AEAAs) was introduced to replace Apprenticeship Agreements in England (subject to transitional provisions). Apprentices employed under an AEAA have the same employment law protection as they would under an Apprenticeship Agreement. However, the form of the AEAA will not be as proscriptive and the requirement for there to be a 'qualifying apprenticeship framework' is being phased out. Instead, we will see the introduction of 'approved apprenticeship standards'.
FE Colleges intending to engage apprentices through an AEAA still need to ensure that the agreement satisfies certain criteria. Therefore, to ensure that the intended form of apprenticeship arrangement applies, and specifically that the Traditional Apprenticeship is avoided, seeking legal advice on the drafting of the agreement would be recommended.
Further proposals for reform
In addition to the recent introduction of AEAAs, the government is also consulting about further changes to apprenticeships. In particular, the possibility of introducing a ban on training providers using the term 'apprenticeship' and 'apprentice' in relation to any training course or training in England, unless it is a government-funded apprenticeship.
The proposal is that misusing the term will be criminal offence, punishable by a penalty fine. Whilst the proposal would not prevent employers from using the term apprentice and apprenticeship in connection with Traditional Apprenticeships, the thinking behind it is that it would address concerns about the dilution of the 'apprenticeship brand' and the application of the term 'apprenticeship' to lower quality courses that do not meet the high standards of statutory apprenticeships, in an effort to make them more attractive to employers or learners.
Charlotte Sloan is an associate at Thomas Eggar, the law firm
So it is official. Productivity is important and is being measured in the FE sector. We know it because at the recent AELP's conference Nick Boles detailed exactly how much government's investment in FE generates by course level.
We could argue these figures, but the simplistic fact remains that government thinks some parts of the education offer is not as productive as others.Of course we all knew that. It stands to reason that different parts of the mix will vary if we measure the ROI.The real question is what can we do to improve productivity?
What is productivity?This wasn't clear to me from Nick Boles speech. He also didn't say how the figures he quoted had been determined. But, in some senses, that actually that doesn't matter.Let's make a few assumptions based on common sense.Fixed costs are the same whether a class is full or half full. Within certain bounds there will be additional variable costs as class sizes grow but the biggest cost will be salaries and to a lesser extent space. So all other things being equal a class of 18 is going to produce a better ROI than a class of eight.So a class of 18 is likely to be more productive is we measure the ROI.That being so we can become more productive if we optimise class sizes at all times. So is marketing the answer to productivity? Is it just a matter of marketing finding more applicants to fill classrooms?
Applications are only half the answerIf only it were as easy as getting more applicants. Sadly the number of applicants is a result of the number of people interested. Based on recent research I've carried out, far too many people show interest but never become applicants. And where they do apply they often fail to convert as I explained in my last article, Ofsted to inspect marketing (fe-news/ofsted-to-inspect-marketing).In many instances, where we recently mystery shopped providers, we found full time course applicants were invited to interview with less than seven day's notice. In one case the invitation to attend interview arrived after the interview date. In the latter case the provider then failed to follow up the "missing" interviewee, but later sent out an acceptance letter. This being the case there were a number of no-shows at interviews which is not productive. In many cases these people then failed to respond to further letters.
Poor admin productivityOther instances where productivity failed dismally during the application process included providers where the application form was completed online, sent to the provider and then retyped in to the in house system. There seems to be no comprehension that a form completed online could be uploaded in to the in-house MIS and/or other system in seconds and don't need to be retyped.Our quick calculation indicated that the providers making this error could each save more than one full time member of admin staff if they moved from retyping to undertaking the task via moving a csv file from one system to another. The cost of moving the file was negligible when compared with retyping. Doing what they had always done makes these providers much less productive than their competitors.
Bottlenecks cause poor productivityOne observation I note from productive businesses is that the answer lies in the culture of the organisation. They point out that where staff enjoy their work, where they understand why they do what they do and where they are allowed to use their initiative, then productivity rises. But they also point out that this can take years to achieve.The positive message they provide is that no process is 100% effective. There are always ways to make processes more effective. So, they argue, if you can streamline a process here or save 15 minutes there then you become more productive. This isn't rocket science ... but neither was the idea of moving electronic data rather than retyping it.
So how can we improve productivity in FE?What is the secret? Clearly optimising the numbers in classrooms will help considerably.So will making better use of lecturers' time. Why do we allow them to teach the same old rote material year after year when a video, made at low cost, can be viewed by the student whilst the lecturer uses their time more effectively to coach small groups of students and ensure that pass rates are high?Improving admin efficiency will certainly help. Especially if we analyse each process we use and fine tune them for maximum efficiency. We should ask ourselves if we can outsource some simple admin tasks, or if there is a piece of equipment that will do the job better.Improving productivity isn't rocket science. But, as with many of the topics I write about, it needs a different mindset if we are to compete with smaller budgets.
Marketing consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and now works with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US - visit: http://www.ProviderMastermind.com (http://www.ProviderMastermind.com) and http://www.StefanDrew.com