The real ‘added value’ in FE

By Rita Sampson, Manager for Lifestyle, Care and Foundation Learning on

The phrase ‘added value’ is one with the power to strike fear into the heart of even the most committed professional in further education (FE) as we struggle to balance support, encourage aspirations and independence alongside working within constraints caused by funding drops over the last 10 years, all accompanied by increasing expectations of quality and a myriad of qualification changes to vocational courses in particular.

With all the recent focus on FE and its funding woes, I have been thinking about the students I know, past and present, who understand more than any government minister, parent, employer or lecturer just what the true ‘added value’ of a FE experience can be. And let’s face it, these are the people who like to tell young people just what is good for them!

Those students who have had a great experience in FE know it’s not just about the tangible benefits of a qualification earned or a passport to higher education. Job prospect enhancement is important but at 16 years old, I’d say there are equally important areas to focus on. With the luxury of a 50-year career there is time to develop your specific industry skills. It’s all the ‘other stuff’ as we refer to it in when we have our departmental meetings with curriculum leads! I’m immensely proud of the team in the department I work with and just how much ‘other stuff’ they do alongside the qualifications they deliver. In particular, the amount of educational trips and visits but especially the two-week Erasmus+ European funded residentials.

We take it for granted in schools that trips and visits are a valuable part of the curriculum and parents happily (for the most part!) stump up contributions towards residentials or class outings. Sadly, by the time young people reach post 16 education, there seems to be a shift in the perception of how much these kind of experiences can really add to an adolescent’s life. Once these offsite activities become non-mandatory the emphasis on their value and engagement seems to lessen. Yet time and time again we see evidence with our own eyes of the impact these experiences bring. Students who were wobbling going on to complete their course, challenging students supporting peers positively, ‘quiet as mice’ students leading a group round a Swedish adventure site and being the first to scale the climbing wall much to everyone’s amazement.

Apart from the precious time donated by lecturers and support staff to enrich the curriculum, programmes like Erasmus+ have been invaluable for us as a college to be able to offer the most amazing experiences for little or no cost to hundreds of students over the past few years. Not only do the students escape lectures for a fortnight and possibly an extension on their assessment hand in date, they gain access to a whole raft of experiences that develop independence and problem solving skills.

They used to say that travel broadens the mind and even in the world of bargain flights and worldwide hostel chains where the menu choices all look familiar enough to quell any illusions of national singularity in 2018, there is still a chicken nugget of truth in this. It’s easy to be sniffy about the value of a trip abroad when you’ve had several foreign holidays or schlepped round every capital city in Europe in your 20’s on a gap year like many older teaching staff. Many of our students come from deprived backgrounds and have never been as far as the nearest city, a grand total of 40 miles away from college, let alone applied for a passport and hopped on to an Easyjet flight to Paris. Even if they acquire a passport, we are one of the least accessible parts of the UK in transport terms and the most intrepid of students would struggle to get to the airport without the help of parents.

The opportunity to spend two weeks immersing yourself in another country with real work experience, a bunch of fellow students and a couple of lecturers feels to me like the kind of thing that risk assessments really ought to declare unfeasible. Undaunted by this, in the last five years, we have managed to get over 600 students out of the country and back again, all of them intact on return to Blighty, a couple of skiing injuries and some minor first aid incidents being the worst case scenario so far.

The placements have ranged from teaching tag rugby in Romania to working in Swedish nurseries. How on earth do you measure the value of these experiences? Obviously, funding requirements dictate the answer to that to some extent. However, my own experiences with students on an Erasmus+ trip and watching several students presentations has really hammered home just how much confidence and worldliness an Erasmus+ trip can instil and this is hard to ‘measure’. The overwhelmingly positive feedback from students and parents showcases the huge benefit of such experiences.

Sadly, with Brexit around the corner, there is no guarantee that future generations of students will be so lucky. However, that’s not the real threat to these types of experiences. The pressure to fit more teaching in with less time and an eroded work/ life balance for lecturers jeopardises the ability to find the space for these ‘luxuries’. I think these are the real added value of FE. There are no league tables or grading in relation to these and that’s a good thing. We don’t need to try and measure the intangible. The scaffolding skills they provide to our students means they have more motivation and resilience; in turn leading to better qualification achievement. Let’s hope these possibilities endure somehow.