Lessons learned over study programmes

Graham Taylor casts a weary eye over the evolution of study programmes.

The study programme is now in its third year, but what have we learned?

Firstly it’s a misnomer. It doesn’t all have to involve “study” — just work experience or enrichment activities.

Is the marked increase in full-time learners attributable to padding out programmes with non-qualification aims to make up the 540 hours (450 for 18 year olds)?

If so, this is a poor use of public money, and it may be a reason that the Department for Education (DfE) is short of funds for 16-18 apprenticeships.

It’s bizarre that up to half of the time can be spent on activities that don’t lead to qualifications

It’s bizarre that up to half of the time can be spent on activities that don’t lead to qualifications, especially when the last government cut enrichment time from 114 to 30 hours.

What they didn’t like (thanks to Alison Wolf) is “mickey mouse” qualifications. So outlaw them, or raise their standards, they say.

But while enrichment, including work experience, may be good for the soul, the quality performance indicators are tenuous at best. Ofsted struggles to assess this.

With regards to “meaningful” work experience, departmental guidance is littered with references to this.

However, they forgot to take into account that many 16-18s have paid jobs (85 per cent in my college).

Surely paid work trumps unpaid work experience. Ofsted was dismissive of this — shelf stacking in Tesco, for example.

But we encourage the employability skills this sort of work encourages — punctuality, customer care, communications and trying to build relevant qualifications around the paid jobs.

Traineeships require a minimum of 100 hours of work experience. We struggle to run any because learners can pick up paid work around here.

But, in theory a “try before you buy” apprentice might work.

However, I cannot see why trainees are exempt from the grade D English and maths rule. If employers prefer GCSEs (and Ofqual say they do) then the rule should apply to all learners.

With regards to core aims, I can’t see why these have to be designated and they are meaningless when it comes to A-level programmes. How can work experience be a core aim in itself? They should drop the notion.

The perceived divide between academic, applied and technical qualifications is also largely artificial — although this is not the fault of the study programme concept. It has more to do with wanting to stream learners.

The differences are usually in the way things are measured (exam versus assessment) rather than content. Which category does an A-level in accounting fall into? All three in my view. We have many young learners taking ‘hybrid’ combinations.

With regards to measuring success, it’s always made sense to measure quality of learning by success rates at course level comparing with national averages and internal progress over the years.

This can be built up to team and sector skills areas and college level using weighted averages (a concept Ofsted struggle with).

The trouble with the school and college performance tables is that they only show 16-18 level threes who complete and do not account for drop-outs (by institution or subject) or level one and two learners — big business in many colleges.

So you could be top of this particular league, but with very high in-year drop-out rates, not good quality.

That’s why we all need to keep our eyes on success rates.

On another note, one interesting outcome of area reviews for FE Colleges might be demerger.

Float off your 14-18 provision and become an academy — benefitting from 100 per cent taxpayer funding for new builds (useful if you have ageing and dilapidated assets) and the ability to reclaim VAT.

It makes more sense than merging with a failing entity, although the poor old 19+ bit would be left to battle in the new world of apprenticeship levies and loans.


Graham Taylor is principal and chief executive of New College Swindon

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