Post-16 education for G&T pupils is disjointed and ill-supported. Mike Bulmer explains what needs to change.

Middlesbrough College has over 700 teaching staff and up to 20,000 full- and part-time learners on four campuses. The curriculum is diverse and flexible covering areas such as construction, arts, ICT, foundation studies, A-levels, sports, hair and beauty, tourism, catering, basic education, ESOL, and some shared HE delivery and foundation degree provision.

Middlesbrough itself is one of the most deprived boroughs in England with 40% of wards falling within the top 10 most deprived in the country.

Is there anybody out there?

When my copy of G&T Update lands on my desk there is never any overt mention of post-16 G&T provision. I have wondered if my frustration with this is the case for others out there, or whether I am just sad and need to get a life! G&T has become such a big part of my working life and has impacted so much on our college that I can’t believe that others are not having similar experiences.

As far as I can ascertain from going to conferences and similar events, post-16 G&T provision is patchy across institutions. Hardly any of the training, resources, research and so on that I have encountered is specifically targeted at this age group. There is a lot of material for pre-16s, and it seems to be assumed that it can be adapted to suit older learners. Post-16 provision seems to be treated as something of a bolt-on or afterthought.

However, this is not to say that individual institutions may have a different experience.

A voice in the dark

If I am being honest it’s quite stressful to recall the early days of our G&T programme. Staff response to the G&T issues ranged from the apathetic to the totally opposed: ‘It’s elitist!’ they cried. Why did I receive such a response?

  • It was seen as something else for staff to have to do and think about – extra work.
  • The college was going through a major merger with another college. It then went through a major staffing restructure and an Ofsted inspection.
  • The Aimhigher project and, therefore, the G&T staff structure, was resourced by external funding. It was seen as temporary, faddy, and not integral to college systems.
  • Staff attached to work ‘at the coalface’ with the G&T project were new and unfamiliar to existing teaching staff; they were not well resourced or given much credence. They weren’t seen as teachers but as educational generalists.
  • They had no designated workplace and were thought a very low priority.
  • Senior management knowledge of what was viewed as a school-based initiative was understandably low given the overall situation.

Not an ideal time to try and get staff and senior management support for a funded project, I think you will agree.

Turning points

In retrospect it has been the quality of the staff attached to the project that has been the major reason for the current successes with G&T provision here.

There has been an enormous amount of ‘championing’ of G&T since the project began and it has been only over the last 18 months to two years that the motivation, enthusiasm and belief in the whole personalised learning agenda has really made an impact. 

The ‘slow burn’ effect has definitely been evident here at the college and the G&T agenda has been raised as a consequence of the ‘can-do’ nature and positive impact of the whole Aimhigher initiative.

The diversity of the curriculum, sheer scale of numbers involved, social demography of intake, the four-campus issue and the nightmare timing of the inception of the project were huge hurdles to overcome. To really raise all things Aimhigher further up the priority list and make this everybody’s issue and not some external, temporary bolt-on initiative, took a long time. It has, however, picked up momentum and is at present steamrollering along on a wave of optimism! The placing of the whole Aimhigher project in the quality department was the real turning point, along with the appointment of an ultra-enthusiastic head of teaching and learning who continues to drive forward the G&T agenda.

Identification and support

Identification of G&T learners is always in flux and being reworked and developed. We identify by school G&T lists, recommendations and GCSE scores; we then use college nomination systems throughout the year to allow tutors to nominate by subject, aptitude and so on. We have approximately 1,500 Level 3 learners in any given year. Our G&T learners are not easy to identify and are definitely not a homogenous group. The stereotypical bright learners who are up for any challenge, motivated, enthusiastic, certain of themselves, exuding confidence and certain of their future path, don’t exist at our college (I don’t think they do anywhere), but some staff seem to think that is what a G&T learner should be like. If your dealings with G&T are anything like mine, you might liken it to pulling teeth and find it highly frustrating at times.

However, the positives outweigh the negatives and there is huge satisfaction in seeing that learner through the complex process of UCAS applications and the associated machinations, change of directions, mood swings and melancholy. Knowing that you have brokered resources that have challenged, stimulated and added value to that young person’s personal statement, job application, and so on – somehow contributing and allowing that person to develop and fly – leads to a really satisfying feeling. The same goes for brokering staff development for teachers. For some of them it can be a revelation that results in a real enthusiasm for catering for their more able learners. But the fundamental link here is that they begin to see how this can benefit all ability groups and can aid their differentiation strategies as a whole.

This is a crucial point. A culture change towards personalised learning and target setting is needed if we are to shift from a support system that is not simply remedial, but is truly personalised. We have to involve all the relevant staff when setting up a programme and attempting to set clear targets for G&T learners. We need to use appropriate educational, tutorial, emotional and personal development resources. Heads of department, the head of teaching and learning, the CPD manager, tutorial coordinators, the G&T coordinator, subject tutors, personal tutors and parents must all play an active part. This must be backed up by paperwork and systems. All the enrichment programmes in the world won’t make much difference unless learners are enthused and catered for in the classroom. This must then be communicated effectively through:

  • individual learning plans
  • lesson observations
  • teaching and learning policy
  • G&T policy
  •  integral quality systems
  • schemes of work.

The college is to mirror and follow the Quality Standards from the DfES and the NACE Challenge Award in 2006.

Diversity issues

However, our G&T cohort is not one dimensional. It is designed to match the diversity of the curriculum and college learner make-up and is not solely the realm of the traditional 6.4 average points score on entry, often associated with the A-level learner. We have vocational G&T learners whose end destination may not be university. It is a lot more difficult to find resources that will stretch them, as most G&T-type activities are designed for A-level learners. G&T identification has to be institutionally relevant. For example, it might be the case that not one of our G&T cohort may make it into another institution’s top 10-20%. Does that mean we have no G&T? To me it’s a relative term, dependent largely on the social demography of intake. 

At our college, traditional A-level G&T resources such as Villiers Park residentials, masterclasses and so on are employed to enhance G&T learners. These resources are tried and tested. However, we would value, and see as appropriate, a really bright hair and beauty learner doing an extra extension course in reiki, as this does exactly the same thing, in a relative way, by stretching the learner and making them more marketable to employers in the world of work, as opposed to impressing a university admissions tutor.

The talented cohort

There is a distinction between the gifted and the talented learners at our college and we have a huge database of talented learners whose abilities and areas of expertise can be allied to, or completely outside of, their course of full time study. We have a very diverse list of learners, from a world champion kick boxer to published authors, national sports people, artists, musicians and performers, public speakers and debaters. We often support talented chefs, hairdressers, dancers, performers and learners from other vocational areas to enter local, regional and national competitions. Often these learners find it difficult to juggle the commitment required to study for a full-time course with all the time they need to be experts in their talent. We support these learners in a number of ways:

  • recognising them
  • funding where possible and if available
  • showcasing their achievements at a celebration event
  • providing a mentor to help with time management
  • being accessible for the learner and valuing what they do.

The future

I would encourage schools to contact post-16 institutions in their area to ask about collaborative work and to learn more about G&T in FE colleges and independent unattached sixth forms. Even if you feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall, perseverance is the key word. It may sound like we have achieved something here and that we have nothing left to do at the college, but that is far from the case. There is still a mountain to climb, and many opinions that will need to be changed, before we can measure the long-term impact and tell whether the G&T agenda has contributed to raising aspirations, achievement and progression in the college.

We must bear in mind that staff members, funding and prime movers will come and go but hopefully the ethos and legacy will be left at the college when the Aimhigher project comes to an end in 2008. That will be the acid test. Can we truly create a learning environment that caters for all abilities without having to overtly differentiate for G&T?

Mike Bulmer has worked on a number of 14-19 initiatives in both the pre- and post-16 sectors mostly, working with disaffected young people in a variety of support roles and, most recently, managing the Aimhigher project at Middlesbrough College.