At Wiltshire College and Brooklands College there is a strong emphasis on creating excellence within teaching and learning. In line with this, we trialled a new approach to developing students’ communication skills within vocational provision. We did this by asking vocational teachers to include English Functional Skills Speaking, Listening and Communication (SL&C) activities in their delivery.
When preparing learners for SL&C assessment, “unfamiliar topics” (as detailed in the specification) are set by English staff. Previously, these topics were randomly chosen but we recognised this approach to selection as a missed opportunity to involve the vocational teams.
Our project aim was therefore to deliver and assess SL&C within vocational areas, with the “unfamiliar topic” coming from a subject or experience that the learner was already confident in.
We envisaged the benefits as grounding SL&C within real-life learning, which would therefore appear more relevant and engaging to learners. Our ultimate aim was to eventually develop a whole college approach towards embedding and increase the overall understanding of vocational staff of the demands of the Functional Skills Curriculum.
I think it is a brilliant idea and we can develop a project from this because the students need to develop their communication skills.
Vocational Lead, Activate Learning
Each college selected vocational departments to work with, Health and Social Care, Visual Arts and Motor Vehicle at Wiltshire College and Health and Social Care, Travel and Tourism and Motor Vehicle at Brooklands College. The departments themselves each selected a tutor to participate in the delivery of the SL&C. These tutors received a Functional Skills training session in order to prepare them and were then assigned a Functional Skills specialist who would support them in developing SL&C opportunities, including assessment opportunities within their vocational delivery.
We were concerned that there may be resistance from the vocational tutors because they might perceive this as an additional workload. In practice, the tutors we worked with were keen to learn and appreciated the support of an English specialist. In fact, such was the enthusiasm of both the Health and Social Care Department and the Visual Arts Department at Wiltshire College; they decided to completely embed the SL&C within their vocational provision without the input of an English specialist.
The videoing of SL&C assessments was a routine part of the Brooklands College quality control and standardisation activities and Wiltshire College thought it would be a good idea to adopt the same system. This parity enabled us to evaluate the results of our intervention along with the distribution of questionnaires and focus groups. However, there was a concern over the anxiety that being videoed may cause and it is important to recognise that an entire cohort of Health and Social Care students refused to participate in this aspect of the project.
The vocational staff was responsible for selecting a range of topics for their students to choose from. In order to minimise duplication of effort for learners, staff were also asked to re-visit their own specifications and criteria. This involved the re-thinking the way vocational evidence could be submitted. For the Health and Social Care tutors, to give an example, it was agreed that a PowerPoint presentation could be submitted as this would satisfy the “written body of evidence” criteria of that course and the “presentation” requirement of the SL&C criteria.
The immediate benefit was a stronger interdepartmental working relationship. This new relationship created a greater understanding of the demands of Functional Skills. By increasing awareness, vocational tutors realised the relevance to their own subject specialisms and how achievement of their own criteria could be linked with achievements in English. The project also helped vocational staff improve their understanding of what constitutes a good discussion or presentation and what was expected of their learners during the assessment of these skills. For learners, it created that essential link between English and real vocationally-driven experiences and also fulfilled two assessment tasks with one activity, a win-win situation.
The downside of this was in the case of the Health and Social Care Department and the Visual Arts Department at Wiltshire who opted to go it alone. Their learner end assessments met the vocational criteria, but did not meet the strict SL&C criteria. We learned from this that, knowing what the SL&C criteria are and understanding and applying them with sufficient rigor are two different things. Our learners will of course have the opportunity to re- sit and our tutors will receive extra support to amend this situation moving forward.
The biggest success however lay with the learners, whose confidence and knowledge soared throughout the project. This was especially true with the Motor Vehicle learners at both Brooklands College and Wiltshire College where the translation of a practical task into a presentation and discussion exercise provided an invaluable and memorable learning experience.
I got better at talking about stuff because I know what it is all about.
Student, Brooklands College
For both colleges, this is just the start of a longer embedding journey which we hope will ultimately culminate in vocational staff developing the skills to independently assess SL&C and thus free up English tutors to focus on SPAG, reading and writing skills. Each partner initially started working with three vocational departments but is now looking to systematically increase this over time across and ultimately work with all vocational teams.
Having set a precedent with SL&C, we will also look at other aspects of Functional Skills delivery such as maths and again see where these can fit within vocational delivery. We realise, however, that this may not be welcomed by all tutors or departments and that there is still a lot of work to be done.
For further information on anything you have read here or if you would be interested in hearing about taking part in future project opportunities please contact [email protected].