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The Teaching Space Podcast

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Nov 30, 2019

Episode 76 of The Teaching Space Podcast explores the topic of helping lower level learners to thrive.


Hello and welcome to The Teaching Space Podcast. It's Martine here. Thank you so much for joining me. Today I have a guest on the show and, I think, rather than me tell you all about her, I'm going to ask her to do that bit herself. Hello, Louise. How are you?

Louise:    Hello, I'm good. Thank you.

Martine:      Welcome to the show. Would you like to introduce yourself to The Teaching Space Podcast listeners? Tell us who you are, what you do, and most importantly, where in the world are you?

Louise:    Yeah, okay. My name's Louise Misselke and I'm the Principal of the College of Further Education in Guernsey, which is a general FE college. At the moment, I'm sitting in my home looking at a blustery gale outside.

Martine:      Yes, that makes two of us because actually we're both based in Guernsey and actually, Louise and I work together, which is one of the reasons I knew she'd be a good guest on the show.

It’s really horrible out there, isn't it? There's probably going to be a bit of a windy noise in the background. So listeners, if you hear anything a bit peculiar, that it's just the weather.

The reason I have asked Louise to come on the show today is that we are going to chat about helping lower level learners to thrive in further education, in particular. Today, we're going to be talking about an ongoing study that you're working on with Dr. Liz Atkins from the University of Derby.

The title of today's show is Helping Lower Level Learners to Thrive and I'd really like to dig into this study and what you've discovered and all of that good stuff.

Louise:    Okay.

Martine:      Would you be kind enough to provide a bit of background on the study in kind of the Guernsey College context?

Louise:    Yes, yes. I'll talk about the Guernsey College context and then, I'll talk a little bit about the background of the study.

 As I said, we're a general further education college, so we have students aged 16 to 19, but also, we have adult learners and apprentices as well, all studying technical, professional or vocational education. Every year, we get a number of students who come to us who have largely been unsuccessful at school, so they come to the college at 16.

Now, when I say they've largely been unsuccessful, this could be for a whole variety of reasons. It could be for social emotional reasons, it could be because they've got very complex lives, it could be that they've had health issues during their school years or it could be that they just didn't fit in school and, for a whole host of reasons, haven't been successful. They exit school without any qualifications at 16 or with a suite of qualifications with very low grades and progressed to the college. We have had a variety of different models for supporting these students with the goal of trying to get them to progress on to further courses at the college, either full time or through an apprenticeship with limited success in the past.

Around 2015/16, I went to a conference where I saw Dr. Liz speaking about her research around the level one learners. I had a chat to her and talked about the possibility of us collaborating on a piece of research really to see if we changed the curriculum offer on our approach, whether that would actually provide a better service to our students because what was happening was students were becoming disengaged and exiting the course early or not achieving and we weren't really doing the best by our students.

Now, if I think about level one students in general, if you look across the UK and in England, so these are students who, as I said, often have very complex lives, but not always. They're often socially excluded, they're invisible in terms of policy, they have often had a negative previous education experience, often characterised as problematic, between 30 and 50% of them usually become NEET, which means Not in Education, Employment, or Training. Often their progression is characterised by periods of employment in low skills, low value employment and periods of unemployment and usually work is not secure. Often they're only able to access low status, low value programmes and the curriculum that's offered in England for level one, currently and historically, has been a very dry curriculum with little aspirations and actually has very little value in the market place.

The group of students that we were having in Guernsey College was no different, really, to the groups of students that Liz had done her research about in the UK. They come with everything that I've described and actually the curriculum that was available for us in Guernsey but also for colleagues in the UK, generally, is a very dry, low value curriculum offer.

We had a lot of discussion about what we can do in Guernsey and because through Liz's extensive research, she sort of had hypothesised what would be really useful for students in this group. We developed a curriculum together and have been monitoring and evaluating, through research process, its effectiveness over the last... Well, we're in our third year now.

One of the reasons we thought it would be really useful to do the piece of research here was because we are an island and students, particularly these sorts of students, often don't leave and so, it's easier, in many ways, to look at their long-term progress to see if what we've actually provided for them has had an impact on their own self belief, their aspirations, their career progression and pathway, and whether its had that positive impact.

Martine:      Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I can see that sort of following their journey would be far more straightforward on a very tiny island as we are.

Louise:    What we did was we looked at the curriculum and looked at how the curriculum needed to change in order to engage the students because we did have quite a high dropout rate. What were we doing that was not really good enough for them? We weren't engaging them, keeping them inspired and so on. How could we do that and how could we create a curriculum that actually allowed them to have a meaningful experience with high value that they could then go on to meet their own goals and aspirations? Because, often these students, first of all, they're not unintelligent, which is a common misconception about level one students and number two, they absolutely have aspirations for their place in the world, but often, sometimes because of their complexity in their life or their experience in school, if it hasn't been a positive one, they've missed out on a huge amount of careers information, advice and guidance, which would allow them to understand the stepping stones they need to take to realise their aspirations.

We recognise that the curriculum has to be really, really engaging, that we had to build in really clear and visible careers advice, information and guidance. English and maths, obviously, is of critical importance. We know, don't we, that if we ask any sort of employers what one of the most critical things that they will talk about is the need for English and math skills, literacy and numeracy skills. But the other thing that is really, really important for this group is to provide them with some ways of gaining social and cultural capital to understand their place in the world and that powerful knowledge that comes from social and cultural capital building because, often, these students might have missed out on those aspects throughout their earlier years.

Martine:      That cultural capital comment is really interesting. I don't want to keep going back to the fact that Guernsey is different to the UK, but actually, we don't live in, for example, a particularly multicultural society.

Louise:    No.

Martine:      Actually, from a kind of life experience perspective, I can really see how in particular our level one learners could be missing out on lots and lots of important experience, that certainly, when you get into the workplace, is absolutely essential.

Louise:    Yeah.

Martine:      That's a really interesting point.

Louise:    Yeah. Yes, absolutely.

If I talk about the offer, the curriculum offer, and then, I'll talk about the research that sort of wrapped around it, the curriculum offer, as I said, is it's composed of a core vocational offer. We felt it was very important that the students still had the opportunity to attain qualifications because for feelings of self-worth and self-belief, actually being able to achieve something is really, really important. We offer them a curriculum of a vocational qualification in the area they particularly want to, so students can apply to us and do a programme in sports and public services, for example, or in health and early years, for example.

Then, there are the English and maths elements which are essential. Then there's the really visible careers information, advice and guidance. And when I say it's really visible, what is important with these students is for them to realise where they are and where they want go and actually map that out. It sounds like a really basic thing. What we've done here is not a golden... It's not something fantastical that's never been done before, but we have displays of what the students' careers aspirations are and the stepping stones that they need to take to get there.

We also include work experience and that's really interesting because work experience and work placement was something that we, before we did the project that we were really challenged by often because the students had bought with them such challenges that we, as an organisation, felt that we couldn't place them with some of our employers. That, on reflection, is really wrong because we were denying those students an opportunity and actually what we've discovered through the project is work experience is one of the most useful elements for the students in terms of really developing their concepts of self-worth and self-belief, but also those relationships with employers and realising that they can make a positive contribution to society, has been essential.

Then, wrapped around all of that, is an enrichment programme. Things like taking the students out for dinner, going to the cinema, going to the theatre. They've had an off-island trip and that's really important because some of these students have never been off the island.

The teaching team took them to UK, which is really important because some of these students have never been to the UK or actually off Guernsey before and they went to an activity centre for a week and also went to Thorpe Park, which was pretty amazing for all of them.

The curriculum is delivered through project, so it's a project based delivery model, which again is not rocket science. It's been around in education and talked about and actually there's a huge amount of research evidence that says it's really effective. But this is the key, I think, that keeps those students engaged because they do a series of projects and through that, they attain their vocational curriculum, their maths and English, they get the work experience, they get the careers, information and guidance and also the enrichment through those series of projects.

That's the curriculum. One of the other things that we're very lucky, another element that the students experience is time in the Forest School. We're very lucky to have a highly qualified member of staff who is trained in for a school. The students go have that on their timetable every week and go and build fires and cook pizzas in the new pizza oven that's being built out in a sort of woodland area, which which they really, really love.

Martine:      It sounds like so much fun. Sorry to interrupt you. Could you just explain in a bit more detail what the Forest School thing is because some of my listeners might not be familiar with that and I think it's an exciting concept?

Louise:    The concept of Forest School is really outdoor learning and our lecturer is a trainer for Forest School practitioners. It commonly happens in the primary area where teachers are trained in Forest School abilities to enable them to take younger children outside to learn and play. Things that our students do in this context is learn how to build a fire. They've done some cooking outside as well. But for primary age children, it is learning outside and that's the concept of the Forest School.

Martine:      Sounds wonderful.

Louise:    Yes, it is. The sorts of projects that the students have been engaged with, they organised an event for equality and diversity for the whole college. That was great because they had the media in and were being interviewed by the radio and the TV, actually, so that was really exciting. They organised, last Christmas, a Christmas community craft event where the students invited older people from one of the residential homes in and also invited children from a local preschool in and they did Christmas crafts together. The students organised the whole event and then, obviously evaluated it afterwards, which was part of the qualification that they were doing.

Some of the enrichment things I've talked about. They've been to the cinema, they'd been out for a meal, they've been to listen to some lectures where speakers are over on the island. All sorts of different things, which are sort of broadening horizons.

Work placement, as I said, has been really, really important. In fact, one of the students attained an apprenticeship through going on their workplace with an employer, which was a really successful outcome for that young person.

That's been the curriculum. Now, the research, we're very, very lucky and fortunate to have been sponsored to do the research by a local company, Rothschild's and Co, who have a really significant corporate social responsibility programme to support young people in these sorts of circumstances. It was a perfect fit and they've sponsored the research over the last three years. We're in our third year now.

The research that has happened is we took students from the year '16, '17, we had 39 students enrolled in total. Just to give a profile of those students, 11 had been supported by the youth commission, which is the youth service charity locally, 6 of them had experienced a family breakup, 2 did not live with the birth family, 6 had seen or experienced domestic violence, 7 stated that they had no one to talk to, 3 of those students had self-harmed, 3 had a family member who were involved with the police, 2 were supported by the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, 3 of the students had social workers and 8 of the students suffered from anxiety. It gives you an idea of the sorts of challenges that these young people are faced with in their lives.

The research really focused on research for social justice, not socially just research and focused on looking at gathering information about a smaller cohort of those students. We actually took a sample of 12 students and they were given structured interviews at the start of their programme during their programme and at the end of their programme. Then, they've been followed up subsequently over the last couple of years with similar interviews, really looking at whether they feel that they've achieved what they wanted to achieve, whether the course and the qualification helped their progression, what are they doing there now and how do they know, has the course supported to get them to where they are now.

We've been able to follow students during that time and, of course, since '16, '17, we've had other students enrolling on the programme and every year we've taken a small cohort, a small sample to follow them. Not only have we got the first cohort that we're following, we've got the subsequent years cohorts as well.

In terms of outcomes, what we've seen is if I talk about the percentage becoming NEET, which is Not in Education, Employment, or Training, before we started the programme, about 30% of the cohort were becoming NEET. Now, we're on about 18%. Whilst it's not good enough, because it's still 18%, it has decreased quite significantly. The dropout-

Martine:      Yeah. That is a significant improvement.

Louise:    Yes. The dropout rate, so the attrition rate has dropped significantly. We were losing probably about 40% of the students before we changed the curriculum. That's increased. I mean, that's dropped significantly. That would be the wrong way, wouldn't it?

Martine:      Absolutely.

Louise:    Yeah. The retention has improved dramatically. Our overall retention last year was something like 92%.

Martine:      Wow.

Louise:    That's had a massive impact on the students' attainment as well. Progression is massively improved. Students are doing the programme with us and then, progressing on to other courses within the college, which is absolutely fantastic because it means that they're working towards meeting their goals and aspirations either as full-time students and quite a number of them have managed to achieve an apprenticeship which, of course, is aiming for them to achieve their professional goals and aspirations.

But, I think, some of the most profound findings are the stories about how students have progressed and I'm quite happy to give you an example of one of the stories if that would be useful.

Martine:      Yeah, that would be lovely. Please do.

Louise:    The names of the students have been changed to give them gender neutral names in the research because we're a really small community and anybody that lives in a small community knows that it's really easy to identify anyone. Even if you just think that you're not using their name and their details, because we're a small community, you have to be really careful because people do know each other. Through the research, we've given them neutral names and also referred to them as he or she, so that their gender isn't specific.

This is a case about Hero, who enrolled onto the programme in 2017 with a really difficult history. Very poor attendance at school, a history of self-harm, had been ejected from the family home due to disapproval of her or his sexuality and was currently sleeping on Auntie's sofa, was abusing drugs and alcohol and was also engaging in risky sexual behaviours, really lacked confidence in their ability to succeed in education or work. During the course, he/she really enjoyed the Forest School, taking part in games, activities, which developed personal confidence and working as a member of a team, fully felt accepted at college and proudly wore the college hoodie and promoted opportunities around the college to other people.

This group had an off island trip to Herm, which was a residential trip, which is a little island off the coast of Guernsey. Initially, Hero was really reluctant to go to Herm as they'd never been on a residential trip before, but really enjoyed this and really felt part of the group.

We have a annual summer ball at the end of the summer term for all of our students and Hero really didn't want to go to the summer ball but eventually did and had an amazing time. Passed the level one programme with a distinction, passed GCSE maths with a significant credential in terms of further education and employment and has been working part-time for the last six months during the course, managed to attain a part-time job.

This student progressed onto a level two programme and continues to develop self-confidence and work placement, most importantly, no longer uses drugs and reduced alcohol intake and is no longer engaging in risk taking behaviour. That was Hero. Quite-

Martine:      What a success story.

Louise:    Yeah, a really, really profound success story. There's so many of them. One student who attained an apprenticeship went on a work placement and attained an apprenticeship. The employer said that the student's attitude to work and confidence was so good that could he have some more students from that group, please.

Martine:      That's wonderful.

Louise:    That really, really, really is good. The students are feeling proud of their achievements and rightly so, they should be. I think, that's so important, isn't it? Because often, these students are people who will have never passed anything necessarily or achieved something. To be able to come to college, stay and then achieve and go onto the next steps is really, really important.

Martine:      Well, I love hearing the statistics and the data as much as the next person, but it really is so heartwarming and surreal when you hear a story like that and the effect that such a positive education experience has had on this individual's life is incredible, really.

Louise:    Yes, it is. It is. Some very positive employment outcomes for students. The research is showing significant social and personal benefits, particularly in the most vulnerable students. The benefit of the project-based approach and the work related experience has been invaluable, particularly in terms of the progression that those students have now been able to secure. If they've gone into an apprenticeship, then it's a secure apprenticeship. They haven't dropped out. Significant improved retention and a smaller proportion of those students becoming NEET.

We've still got some work to do, so we're in the third year, final year, although we've been talking about extending the study for a further two years. We've made some tweaks to the curriculum delivery as we go based on our learning from the previous years. This year, we've tweaked it quite a bit, where the students are going to be achieving qualifications in the first term and then more in the second and more in the third. But fundamentally, at the heart, is a project-based curriculum with a vocational qualification, with all that enrichment wrapped around to confer the social and cultural capital with the maths and English and with the careers advice, information and guidance.

Martine:      That's fantastic. Thank you so much for explaining that, Louise, and also giving that additional context of a real life story because it makes such a difference and actually, the listeners of the podcast are from a wide variety of education backgrounds, but just kind of having that overview of why this is working and how it's working is really fascinating.

Louise:    It is.

Martine:      Thank you for that.

Louise:    That's okay.

Martine:      Is there anything you would like to add to everything that you've explained? 

Louise:    I think, the most important thing about what we've done here is it's not rocket science. There's a huge amount of research, isn't there, around delivering learning and knowledge through projects being really successful and that's what we've done here.

We have got the benefit of having the research around it, which clearly demonstrates how well it's working. The other thing, I think, for any of your listeners that are further education, it hasn't really cost us any more than a UK college would be able to spend on level one students. It's not a really costly way of delivering a curriculum and supporting that learning because all the projects are things that are naturally occurring in the community and we've just tapped into that.

Martine:      That's a really good point actually, Louise, because I think there is a misconception that Guernsey is such an affluent island, that we have all the funding available to do anything we want and that's not the case at all.

Louise:    No, no.

Martine:      A really valid point that this new approach to working with lower level learners has not cost the organisation or then, perhaps, it would've done doing it the old way as it were, so that's a great point.

Wrap Up

Martine:     Louise, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Louise:    You're welcome.

Martine:      It's highly likely that people might want to ask you a question or two-

Louise:    Yes, yes.

Martine:      ... about this exciting project. If that is the case, where can people find you online? What's the best way to say hello?

Louise:    Either Twitter, I'm louisemisselke or people could email me at the college, which is

Martine:      That's wonderful and I will make sure there's links to your Twitter account and also the email address on the show notes for the episode.

Louise:    Great. One more thing, I should have said, if anyone wants to ask Liz Atkins, the Professor from University of Derby, she also is available on Twitter, which is drlizatkins, I think. She has got an inaugural lecture at the University of Derby, which is very prestigious, coming up in November, where she is talking about our study.

Martine:      Amazing. Well, again, I'll make sure that information is on the show notes. By the time this episode goes out, I suspect that will have happened. If there are links to sort of a recap of that lecture or any information about it, again, I'll pop that in, so people can access it.

Louise:    Great.

Martine:      Fantastic. Thanks again.

Louise:    That's okay.

Martine:      Thanks for coming on the show!

Louise:    All right then.

Martine:      I hope you'll come back again.

Louise:    All right.

Martine:      Thanks.

Louise:    Have a good day.