Staffroom - Opinion

Can FE ever really be more than just a qualification?

I’d be hard-pushed to say my learners want or value the hidden curriculum, writes Alex Martin, but that’s not the point of this important work

I’d be hard-pushed to say my learners want or value the hidden curriculum, writes Alex Martin, but that’s not the point of this important work

10 Oct 2022, 5:00

Every year, thousands of learners navigate their way through the tumultuous landscape of further education in England. The question I often find myself asking is: what motivates these people to attend, work hard and develop relationships with staff and peers alike?

The obvious answer is that learners simply want to gain whatever qualifications they find themselves studying towards. On an individual and subjective level, this is surely the most important thing in the learner’s educational life. So, the relationships they develop along the way must merely be vehicles for progress and attainment – pure working relationships with a means to an end, to get the learner to the next stage of their journey. 

However, in light of the pandemic, the subsequent crisis of motivation and achievement, and the constant pressure from centralised bodies to ‘add value’ and develop the ‘hidden curriculum’, surely we owe it to these individuals to give them more?

At The City of Liverpool College, we have a focus on the cultural and hidden curriculum. We have created a personal development programme for all learners who walk through our doors, which stays with them for their entire time with us. It even refreshes if they spend more than one year studying with us.

We want the learner to be aware of the world around them: sustainability initiatives; social connections; digital skills; and what we ultimately describe as ‘The Liverpool Way’. We work hard as teachers to identify gaps in qualification specifications that can be filled with lifelong skills and experiences. For example, I try as much as possible to take groups to local areas of natural beauty, to the Crown Court to watch live trials, and to educate them on local history through the array of museums on our doorstep. And I try to develop their skills for work too, like the ability to present information, to work in a team and generally to communicate effectively. I do this on top of any specification requirements, but I link it back in where relevant and appropriate. 

Learners’ experiences can be enriched almost without their knowledge

But do the learners want this? In fact, I think if they were surveyed the instant response would be ‘no’. I am not sure whether learners can link the kind of experiences listed above with positive outcomes or destinations. And because their time is valuable to them, most would probably prefer for us to just get on with teaching them what they need to pass the course.

This is where the trick and nuance of the hidden curriculum comes into play. Through a series of well-planned, well-defined tasks and activities, learners’ experiences can be enriched almost without their knowledge. They will leave as more and better prepared individuals, ready for industry and for civic life.

One of my hardest post-pandemic challenges has been embedding resilience into the curriculum. Resilience is a key life skill that we all use every day, but exposing a learner to scenarios where they hone it seems unfair even at the best of times. After all, we can’t fail a learner in the name of making them more resilient. However, we can look for clever ways to push learners out of their comfort zone. Delivering a small presentation, participating in a fitness test or even pairing disconnected learners together for small tasks have been effective solutions in our curriculum and working group. 

Ultimately, it is probably best to not sweat my titular question. Perhaps college is just a means to an end for the learners we enrol – but as colleges and as teachers it is our responsibility and duty to provide more than this.

We must do this with the understanding that we may never get to see the fruits of our labour. But are we there for thanks and gratitude, or are we there to do our best for those who find themselves sitting in our classrooms?

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