Claire Collins

Project Director, ccConsultancy

Reading articles and reports about English in the post-16 sector, it would be easy to imagine that English teaching today consists entirely of preparing learners to resit GCSE exams or achieve a pass in Functional Skills English, and then picking up the pieces for all those learners who don’t make the grade. There is truth in this; many learners don’t achieve what they need for progression, and must again go through the resit cycle. However, post-16 English is about more than this.

More than a resit factory

If we are to look beyond the English results tables, and recognise the rich variety of English development that takes place in post-16 settings, first we might ask; ‘what does it mean to be good at English’? According to Marshall and Wiliam (2006, p.4-5) in order to be good at English, learners “need to learn to develop judgement about the quality of the work they and others produce.” Marshall and Wiliam share the idea proposed by Sadler (1989) that this use of judgement is the development of “guild knowledge” whereby those of us who are ‘insiders’ in this guild believe we have the right, for example, to express ourselves in our own style and to comment on other authors’ texts.
Put simply, we feel we have the authority to say about a text ‘that’s good’ or ‘that’s bad’ and this is why I think it to be so. Herein lies an important synergy between English teaching, learning and assessment and action research: we are all concerned with the development of judgement, with describing the quality of what we do and why we do it.
In the OTLA English programme this year we have seen multiple examples of teachers expressing their understanding of effective approaches alongside learners, who had previously thought they were terrible at English, recognising that they can progress and sharing their views on what works and what doesn’t. We are more than a resit factory and the OTLA programme has provided ample evidence of this.

English knowledge claims from across post-16 curricula

Quite aside from every-day literacy and language acts (the communication we take part in throughout our lives), the practices of learning and teaching English in the post-16 sector take place in spaces as diverse as prison gyms, woodwork shops, web rooms, libraries, greenhouses, warehouses and, of course, English and ESOL classrooms. It is in and across these varied learning spaces this year that knowledge claims about English teaching, learning and assessing have been tested, and contested, and new claims to knowledge have been made.

In this wonderful collection of reports, OTLA English participants share their project findings and seek to help you build on them for your own knowledge and practice, by describing the contexts in which their work took place and explaining what they wished to improve, how they undertook their action research, what they learned and why this matters. We hope that, by including such a diversity of voices and ideas, we can inspire you to ask of your own practice;

“How can we improve what is happening here?”.

What we mean by ‘outstanding’ in Post-16 English contexts

OTLA stands for ‘outstanding teaching, learning and assessment’ but, outside the context of inspection and quality improvement grades, outstanding can be understood in many different ways. Is it outstanding to ensure that learners achieve high grades in English exams? Is it outstanding to promote respect for linguistic and cultural diversity? Is it outstanding to develop learners’ critical communication awareness in a world of increasing online manipulation and questionable sources of ‘truth’? There is a place for all these things if we shape a broad understanding of the term ‘outstanding’ and take a community approach to achieving this.

How we think of ourselves is revealed in our social discourses, those “themes, attitudes, and values – expressed through written and oral statements, images and behaviour – which at a given time and place … are deemed meaningful” (Papen, 2005, p.12). Are we still a ‘Cinderella sector’, forever destined to be the neglected middle child between schools and HE? I think this perception is starting to change and it is the result of a plethora of voices rising up from the sector saying that they have researched their practices, and have learned how to reach out to disengaged and disaffected learners, as well as learners who have written themselves off as ‘too thick’ for English achievements or who are no longer willing to try. I see the same values persist that shaped my practice as a new teacher of literacy and ESOL in the late 1990s, despite the many changes we have seen in the past 20 years. All those in our sector who work to provide English learning opportunities unequivocally care about learners’ present and future lives and seek to find ways to open up opportunities for all, in many cases, with the bare minimum of funding in which to do so. This has been brought into sharp focus today as I write during the ‘great lockdown’ and reflect on the past few weeks of my practice. I have had countless conversations with teachers who want to ensure that all their learners, with and without digital connections, both continue to learn English and also feel part of active and supportive learning communities.

Reflections on what we learned this year

The reports in this collection offer many diverse and hopeful stories of learning English in our sector. Together this year, teachers, learners, managers, mentors, and everyone who has made this programme such a joy to be part of, have created a space where everyone has a chance to shape our collective understanding of what works and doesn’t work. There is not enough room here to mention all the action research reports and reflective accounts you can read in this booklet, so I will share just a few examples to whet your appetite before you dive in and immerse yourself in the pages that follow:

  • South Devon College explored how progressive marking strategies, including directed improvement and reflection time (DIRT), used widely in school settings, helped learners raise their grades.
  • Suffolk New College explored and adapted approaches using visualisers, for example, to annotate texts live in class.
  • Sheffield College explored the potential of developing a “mindset” approach across an English team and provide great insight into teachers’ decision-making. They demonstrate how theory needs to be adapted to practice for every teacher.
  • Kent Adult Education Services designed development plans for volunteers to assess and develop learner independence, which, they explain, had a particularly positive influence on Entry Level and ESOL learners.
  • City Lit worked with a neuroscientist to stimulate fresh insights into learners’ needs, which prompted fascinating reflections from established teachers.
  • The librarian at Burton & South Derbyshire College worked with ESOL Level 1 learners to develop their reading and writing using an online noticeboard called Padlet as a space to share books and reflections. This led to learners who had never before used the library services becoming regular and active members of the college’s library community. Her work was shared with Newcastle College and enabled their ESOL team to overcome technology barriers that were stifling ESOL learners’ writing for purpose.
  • Moulton College investigated learners’ choices of scaffolding strategies in a project titled ‘to PEE or not to PEE’ and found that learners often needed personalised scaffolding to suit their individual approaches. This is an excellent example of English staff learning from observing vocational tutors’ practices.
  • Springboard showed how a small independent training provider used the project opportunity to make incremental changes to their teaching through linking with their organisation’s newly-established “learning champions”.
  • Kirklees College’s Learning Resource Coordinator investigated how to help learners improve the quality of their academic writing and drew on insights from learners and staff to design usable web materials.

Emerging Themes

Common themes have emerged across the programme, such as the fundamental problems caused by low motivation and disengagement in learners who have experienced repeated cycles of failure in English, and the positive outcomes when these learners experience success in their efforts.

For example, in the post-16 phonics projects there are frequent references to turning failure into progress – e.g., the motor vehicle apprentice who spells “diaphragm” as “diafram” has 5 of the 7 graphemes correct. For demotivated learners, teachers recognised that some impact could be detected when learners began actively engaging (rather than passively complying) with activities, showing curiosity and often pride in their newfound potential, no matter how limited.

Another theme was the importance of learning with colleagues from different subject backgrounds, for example, vocational tutors introduced to English activities were delighted to discover manageable approaches that had an immediate usefulness in workshops, and this was evident across colleges, adult learning providers and prisons (see Novus’ project, where Construction, Catering and Horticulture staff adopted Phonics approaches as a key to improving spelling and confidence of craft terminology). This practical cross-subject approach enhanced the value of English to other staff and was most evident in approaches to assessment for learning, reading, scaffolding and resilience activities.

I am sure there is much that you will enjoy reading and I now invite you to delve deeper into this important publication. Perhaps the reports here will inspire you to investigate and improve your own practices and certainly you will see that there is much to build on from this action research undertaken by the sector for the sector.