Breaking the cycle

Breaking the Cycle

Newcastle College and Community First North East

In 2016, nearly half of 16-year-olds left school not having achieved the minimum standard of attainment (5 GCSE grade Cs).[1] 15.5% [2] of 16-18-year-olds are not in education or training It's about relationshipsdespite the raising of the participation age and over 790, 000 18-24-year-olds are classed as not in education employment or training (NEET) [3] across the UK. If we are to break this cycle we need to provide ‘alternative’ education programmes divorced from negative past experience and designed to focus on securing the skills and qualifications needed to prepare them for further study and/or employment.

This project explored 3 questions considered key to providing a successful fresh start for these learners: What do we need to know about these learners before they start on programme? What does the alternative programme need to look like? How do the teaching and learning approaches we adopt need to change to ensure that we encourage our learners to take their next steps with the confidence, independence and resilience to succeed?

Project Summary

This project brought together partners in the North East and Cumbria with experience and expertise in providing ‘alternative’ education routes and was designed to encourage collaboration and research among colleagues working in the same field, providing a cost-effective opportunity to explore new ideas and strategies, identify useful resources and share any insights gained through the creation of a practitioner network.

These aims and outcomes were broadly identified at inception, but refined after the first meeting when partners shared their self-assessments and identified what could be accomplished within the scope of the project. The project aims were also amended to allow for the fact that not all partners had been able to participate as fully as originally planned. Two of the partners Community First North East (CFNE), a third sector provider, and The Access to FE team at Newcastle College have chosen to engage more fully with the project with others undertaking to critique outcomes and outputs through the provider network.


Self-assessment reviews identified that attendance, behaviour, and retention were causing concern on some programmes. Partners were keen to explore why this was happening and what could be done to improve the situation.

This project was originally designed to encourage collaboration and research among practitioners working in alternative education, however, initial findings soon flagged its potential for most programmes targeting 16-19 year olds. It provided a cost-effective opportunity to explore the ingredients needed to create truly ‘alternative’ education programmes divorced from negative past experience and designed to focus on securing the skills and qualifications needed to prepare learners for further study and secure employment.

The project addressed 3 questions considered key to providing a successful fresh start and to ensure that we encourage our learners to take their next steps with the confidence, independence and resilience to succeed.
1. What do we need to know about these learners before they start on programme?
2. How does the ‘alternative’ curriculum need to differ to engage and prepare learners for progression?
3. What TLA strategies work well with these learners?

Project Activities and Outputs

Approach and Methdology

A mixed methodology approach which included learner focus groups, staff surveys, desk-based review, teaching experiments and peer observation was used to explore the three areas identified. Progress was reported against these areas and resulted in the development of a learner profile and guidance, an induction curriculum based on findings from the project and reflections on TLA resources and strategies used to overcome skills gaps all of which was collated on a Padlet site to be shared.

Professional Learning

Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices.

Staff were able to shape project objectives following a review of recent academic research, government surveys, reports etc, reflecting on their own practice and the effectiveness of existing organisational procedures. This resulted in the collaborative development of a generic learner profile template and guidance document identifying the information /process needed to facilitate the induction of learners and the exploration of Growth Mindset assessments with one partner in particular.

A variety of learner focus groups highlighted possible reasons for learners struggling to stay on programme which subsequently informed the development of an induction curriculum. Teaching experiments and peer observations were used to explore strategies to be incorporated in the curriculum. These involved a range of different approaches including digital technologies, scaffolded learning techniques and collaborative learning all of which were designed to encourage confidence and support independence.

The lesson experiments conducted by Improvement Practitioners and the reciprocal peer observations conducted in the first phase of the project impacted explicitly on both practitioner and organisational practices. An experiment with a maths group, for example, focussed on ways of improving the learners’ attitudes to tackling new maths concepts and increasing their motivation to persevere when gaps in their previous knowledge cause them to give up. The experiment looked at the effect that learner support vs scaffolded tasks had on learner motivation. The findings which identified learners’ dependence on support staff for motivation resonated with the project team and has resulted in changes to the induction curriculum and has prompted more research into the effective use of support staff, a very valuable but diminishing resource.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisational practices

Adopting a bottom up research methodology firmly grounded in what the learner thinks and needs has resulted in greater collaboration between learner, support staff and tutors. This has impacted on the development of curriculum content, organisational practices e.g. IAG/ recruitment, and the identification of staff development needs e.g. embedding the development of character skills into the curriculum.

The project extension has improved collaboration within and between schools, with Improvement Practitioners acting as conduits for sharing ideas and project findings through project meetings and through the observation process. Experiments have been valued highly by staff as they feel that they have made it easier to understand individual learners

‘…especially those who had behavioural issues, to try to understand at what point they became distracted.’ and have relished the chance to ‘use new techniques & methodologies and be observed in a non-judgemental environment.’

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression.

Despite the fact that the profile and curriculum is not due to roll out until 2018/19 we were able to capture some evidence of how the project has impacted on either those directly influenced by the research process or those affected by the engagement of their tutors in the project. Attendance on these programmes has improved by 5% and performs well compared with vocational attendance. Retention has risen by 3% with a further 3% predicted rise in achievement. Behavioural issues also appear to have benefitted from the project with a reduction in the need for stage 3 disciplinaries.

Similarly, strategies to promote more collaborative working methods demonstrate improvements in learners’ confidence, ability to think of ideas, share opinions etc ‘Group work skills have improved. She readily asks questions but is still learning how to keep these to the point and focussed and also has a target of pausing to think before responding to others.’

Improvement Practitioner observations and peer observation feedback have shown that learners are responding well to more responsibility, peer marking, scaffolded tasks etc and these approaches are being taken up by other members of the team ‘Since observing X, I have already used her idea with an elementary class.’

Concluding Remarks

Learning from this project

The significance of learners’ past experience cannot be underestimated. It is essential that we provide every opportunity for learners to develop the skills and confidence needed to make a successful ‘fresh start’ in order to access further study and/or employment.

We found that:
• Learner profiles must be more than administrative exercises. They can open dialogues, personalise learning, make programmes more relevant and help anxious learners settle in.
• Curriculum content needs to reflect the interests and needs of all learners. Focussing on the intrapersonal skills needed to deal with feedback, time management etc; the interpersonal skills needed to work in teams, listen, share ideas etc; and the skills of enquiry, all of which are often underdeveloped.
• The usefulness of every learning activity needs to be maximised so that every opportunity is taken to develop skills further. These need to be recognised in the learning scheme (SoW) and any assessment of learning.
• The project grew organically from the first learner focus groups and an inductive approach was adopted to ensure that everyone had a voice in shaping the direction of the project and took ownership of decisions. This approach has increased the momentum for change, resulting in more peer observations/ experimentation, a new induction curriculum and continued collaboration.


Full report including appendices and media throughout

Reflective Padlet with resources


[1]   Perera, N. Treadaway, M., Johnes, R. (2016) Education in England: Progress and goals  England:CentreForum.p.7.

[2]   Pells, R. (25/05/17) Significant increase in the number of 16-18 year-olds not in work or school  The Independent accessed 09/11/17

[3]   Office of National statistics (2017) Young people not in education, employment or training (NEET),UK:August 2017

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