Friday, 13 May 2016

The importance of getting the basics right

Just a couple of weeks ago campaigners from a group called ‘Save our Early Years’ announced that there would soon be ‘catastrophic’ staff shortages in nurseries. Why this dire prediction for an entire industry – and one which is of critical importance? English and mathematics.

In September all nursery staff will be required to have at least Grade C GCSEs in these subjects, with Government deeming numeracy and literacy skills an essential component to work in this sector.

There is little doubt that these subjects are two of the most basic, and yet fundamental skills a person can have in our society. The importance of a good knowledge of both is clear. After all, English, both written and verbal, is critical to communicating successfully, and as a person who chose to train in maths, the importance of a decent understanding of its principles is all too clear to me.

You could say that these two areas of learning, above all others, are the building blocks for growing a person’s knowledge in other subjects. If a student is unable to communicate clearly and accurately, how can they progress their studies in other areas?

But despite that importance, there is a real struggle in FE to help our learners’ progress in both English and maths to Grade C at GCSE level. It isn’t a lack of desire on our part, nor is necessarily a lack of resources. Instead, it is a battle to inspire students who, having left school without the all-important Grade C, simply do not want to learn these key subjects.

And while there is – in my College, and many others – a real emphasis placed on the importance of learning these basic skills, improving results is neither easy, nor simple. Our maths and English tutors are being asked to achieve something in a mere 36 weeks which the pre-16 education system has failed to do after 11 years. And they are being asked to achieve this with the most challenging students; those who have already failed to achieve the required standard in these core subjects. That’s no criticism of the schools – rather the system itself – but it does place the issue into context, illustrating just how difficult it is for the FE sector to perform in this key test.

And yet FE is beginning to win the battle, with the Department for Education recently publishing a report (Level two and three attainment in England: Attainment by age 19 in 2015) which found that students achieving level two English and maths had risen from 67.8 per cent in 2014, to 70 per cent in 2015. Hardly meteoric, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

And our college has also seen some successes, with good levels of achievement in a blended learning pilot we delivered last year. In fact, at East Kent College our students managed to achieve a fantastic 585 qualifications in English, and 588 qualifications in Maths. As a mathematician, it’ll come as little surprise that I’m particularly proud of our achievements in that subject, with a cross-campus rate of A* to C passes for 16-18 year olds at 31.8 per cent in 2014-15. During that academic year our Broadstairs Campus performed best, with a solid 37.2 per cent of all 16-18 year olds entered into GCSE maths getting the targeted A* to C grade. It’s also an area which Ofsted, at their recent visit to our Dover and Folkestone campuses flagged up, stating that “the focus on English and mathematics remains unrelenting, and the college’s determination to get this right is beyond reproach.” There is still more to do to meet the GCSE maths and English challenge, but FE – and East Kent College – is improving.

That’s good news for learners, for FE and for college principals across the country; but it’s not nearly good enough, and in fact a recent study of skills in England by the OECD has shown that the UK is still far below other countries in terms of numeracy and literacy. In fact, it sits very close to the bottom of a list with more students who’ve progressed to university with weak literacy and numeracy than most countries. And that’s the learners who have progressed to higher education – the story is worse between 16 and 19-year-old learners, with one third of them considered to have low basic skills.

So what now? What do we do as a sector to continue to grow these achievements? I suppose in many ways, we should treat maths and English studies as a bedrock to a student’s learning, because more than any other skills they may develop, these are the foundations for everything else. And our students can’t just be expected to learn these skills in a subject specific vacuum. Instead, we need to embed this core learning into everything we, as a sector do with our students. In order to grow their skills in their chosen areas, we need to ensure that high quality maths and English learning is emerging in all of their study. That means if we have a student on a professional catering course, tutors need to build functional maths and English skills into their everyday learning.

The challenge though, becomes even deeper when – as is the case for East Kent College – the areas in which it is located are economically deprived. Much of a student’s educational results are dependent on parental background, with those from disadvantaged areas less likely to achieve a high standard in core skills like maths and English. In constituencies with high levels of deprivation, the challenge to teach these skills to the required level becomes even greater. There is as yet, no clear solution to creating equity with more affluent areas in this respect, and that will continue to make the teaching of these core skills more challenging for colleges such as my own. Despite that, I’m proud to say that our commitment to promoting these basic skills is unwavering, and in fact has never been stronger than it is right now.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Investing in the future of our creative sector

As a College which is passionate about ensuring our students have the best possible outcomes, we have worked hard over the past few years to ensure the courses we offer mirror the opportunities available in our local economies.

One of the fastest growing sectors in Thanet over the past few years has been the creative one. It has seen wide scale growth as cash has poured into regenerating Margate, first with the Turner Contemporary and then with Margate’s Old Town. The sector has also grown more broadly across Kent, providing almost 14,000 high quality jobs for those with the right skills.

This week East Kent College officially launched its Michael Wright Centre for the Creative Industries. The entire building is dedicated to ensuring that our students who want to break into this competitive sector have the finest facilities available to them. Ensuring they already have experience of working with industry standard equipment is of real importance if they are going to be able to move from our College straight into this exciting sector.
It was also a wonderful opportunity for me to meet up with the former Chair of our Governing body, and the man who the building was named after, Professor Michael Wright CBE DL.

L-R Graham Razey, Lucy McLeod, and Michael Wright
Michael was the man at the helm of East Kent College when I joined, so effectively became my boss and line manager. He became a real mentor to me, showing me the value of taking control and standing behind my decisions. I was proud to see our new building bear his name, as a legacy of his time working with East Kent College and promoting the cause of further education. It was his vision which saw the creative sector as a key area to expand into, in order to ensure the best opportunities for the young people who study with us.

When the building was conceived by Michael and other senior members of the College, the hope was that it would become a centre of excellence for the creative industries, with the highest specification equipment. That dream has been realised, with state-of-the-art technology embedded throughout the building, ensuring students are able to get the best opportunity to learn, create and build their skills. A large auditorium, digital media suite with the latest in computing technology, and large music performance spaces all mean staff and students are given the best opportunities to teach and learn.
Michael Wright sees students using the Mac Lab
These features also mean that the building is able to serve as a venue for community use, with the Principal of our Broadstairs Campus, Lucy McLeod, highlighting this as being one of the key uses for the auditorium. It has already held a talk about the history of the E-Type Jaguar, with a leading expert discussing the history of the company, and there are plans afoot to create a community choral society as well.

It’s a building which ticks all of the boxes, with our local economy, community and education all playing their part in its creation.