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Further education – where students are over assessed and staff are over worked - Darren Hankey

11 April 2024

By Darren Hankey, Principal at Hartlepool College of Further Education

Social media gets a bad rap, especially when it comes to things like young people’s mental health. Like many reading this blog, I have an X and LinkedIn account and, on balance, I feel I get more from these platforms than I feel they detract from me. They are a good way to keep abreast of developments in the wonderful world of FE, as well as other areas in which I’m interested, and another recent positive development is the rise of podcasts.

There are many good podcasts related to FE and one of these is the EDSK pod, Inside Your Ed. A recent episode focused on the Advanced British Standard and the implications of this for policymakers and the sector. A couple of facts jumped out at me from this episode, both of which I knew, but the podcast brought them right back to the forefront of my attention.

The first was the fact students in the English FE system are exposed to way fewer study hours than their peers in other advanced nations: 580 compared to 950 in Finland, 1000 in Germany and 1300 in Singapore. The second fact was that English students in post-compulsory education are massively over-assessed compared to their peers elsewhere. This was a wider point emphasised in a recent Guardian article featuring Estonia which is one of the best performing nations at Key Stage 4 as measured by the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (PISA). At Key Stage 4, in Estonia students sit exams in just three subjects.

In a time when we constantly hear about the pressures young people face as well as teachers’ workloads, both worthy of blogs of their own, are we not missing a trick by having a good, long and hard look as assessment in FE and our schools? For example, the average FE college is likely to work with more than 40 awarding organisations (AOs) and all of these will have their own quality standards processes. This is fair enough, but as colleges will testify, these processes often involve the AO asking for similar information, which takes time for a college to put together. Could this operation be done once for all AOs to reduce the burden on colleges?

FE teachers then will pore over specifications to produce schemes of work and assessments, all of which need to go through both an internal and external standard verification process to assure the quality of the offer. Again, this is all well and good and it provides assurance, but does every single criterion have to be covered and a mountain of evidence must be produced by staff and students for quality to be assured?

Like most colleges, at Hartlepool College of FE, staff complete an annual survey which provides superb feedback into working life at the college. Inspired by Teacher Tapp, this year we’ve slightly tweaked things and ask our staff a “question of the day”. In essence, we have 40 questions that we ask staff on a rotating basis and this has provided us with rich data about working life at the college and how staff feel about certain topics over a longer period of time. The questions focus on aspects of work which, if done correctly, lead to good quality work – for example the demands of the job, information/support provided and effective relationships. Overall, I am pleased with the feedback provided by staff but one area which jumps out time and time again is the fact staff feel there are not enough hours in the day to do their job well. Qualitatively, I meet with a group of staff from across the college to share question of the day data and aim to get richer feedback re the findings. From teaching staff, the demands placed on them by AO features prominently.

So, in summary, the English FE system is such that our students have fewer contact hours than their peers in other advanced nations, they are massively over-assessed and this places a great burden on colleges in terms of the teaching staff and the key support areas which have to feed the assessment beast. Our aspiration must be to do better than this, to have qualifications which ensure high standards, but ones which don’t work our students and staff to the bone.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.