Curriculum design was a critical and well developed skill that FE staff once placed at the centre of their professional expertise, says Lynn Sedgmore. It’s time it was again…

The freedoms and flexibilities of New Challenges, New Changes and the more recent Rigour and Responsiveness in Skills, have given colleges greater opportunities to be responsive to the priorities of learners, employers and communities, stimulating them to review their curriculum offer as well as their current capacity for curriculum development and redesign.

Yet, in an environment where funding and quality assurance have been driven by a focus on qualification success rates, and where funding pressures have limited the appetite for experimentation and risk-taking, this capacity for curriculum development and redesign may often need to be rediscovered and redeveloped.

When I entered FE in the early 1980s, curriculum-led staff development and the art of curriculum design was a critical and well developed skill that we all placed at the centre of our professional expertise.

Recently I have heard many calls for a rediscovering of what this means in this period of autonomy and freedoms.

A recent 157 project, supported by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, examined the challenges and opportunities facing FE colleges in amending and aligning their curriculum offer. It offers some insight from the experiences of seven college-based action research projects.

A culture of innovation and experimentation, with a strategic commitment to give staff the time and resources needed to support curriculum change, are vital”

This new publication, Curriculum ReDesign in Further Education Colleges, is available on the 157 website.

Responsive curriculum obviously needs to be based on the identified needs of the ‘curriculum-user’, that is, learners and/or employers. Multiple ways of engaging with curriculum users are vital to ensure training and skills needs are correctly identified, as well as to ensure deeper relationships with users to support effective and responsive curriculum development and delivery.

Many of the  action research projects — looking at curriculum content, delivery methods, infrastructure — highlighted developing staff capacity as the starting point for enabling effective change; staff need to have the necessary confidence and skills to be able to be innovative and make changes to current provision.

A culture of innovation and experimentation, with a strategic commitment to give staff the time and resources needed to support curriculum change, are vital.

As well as having a clear ‘plan’ for their curriculum initiatives, with objectives and expected outcomes, many colleges adopted a whole-college approach, ensuring that the changes were perceived as a definite organisational strategy, with common approaches/protocols across all areas.

As well as supporting the development of staff capacity to innovate, the action research projects also highlighted that colleges need to critically review their structures, including their staff contracts, staff utilisation protocols and cross-college communications, to develop mechanisms that enable them to identify and respond to needs in a more timely way with high quality provision.

This may involve implementing a range of ‘solutions’, including developing new roles for staff, developing effective cross-college links and supporting improved relations with external partners and stakeholders.

With government drives to coordinate skills planning at local and regional levels, curriculum development and redesign may become more complicated, possibly requiring multiple providers to work together to plan and develop an area’s curriculum.

The 157 Group is keen to work with others to support curriculum change and to support the sector in responding to the clear challenges of demonstrating responsiveness and accountability to learners, employers and communities.

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group