Delivering Functional Skills is an art form. This is not a hyperbole but a point of fact and experienced tutors will recognise the truth of this. Occasionally a FS tutor needs to step back and reflect by observing his class and his practice.
Designing and teaching a Functional Skills programme is far more complex, far more intricate than teaching GCSEs or A Levels. This is because FS classes require a wider range of interpersonal, communicative and pedagogical skills than any other programme. After all, in FS the tutor is often dealing with disaffected or disillusioned students.
It is for this reason that management in colleges and training institutes need to spend a lot more time focusing on the ethos, nature and politics of Functional Skills and to differentiate it from the rest of the curriculum. Is it all about attainment or skills? Such questions should be tackled during specific CPD training sessions.
With Functional Skills, institutions need to appoint visionaries – people who believe in the value and ethos of running vocational courses. They need to have the conviction that FS is a viable, creditable alternative to the GCSE programme. As such, FS staff need to be the most qualified, the most experienced members of the English and Maths teams and not always the new teachers who are often given FS to teach in the false belief that it’s an easy option.
It is true that Functional Skills is not so much about subject knowledge as in the case with A Level subjects. Instead, it’s about strategies, approaches and effective pedagogy. So, the tutor needs to employ varying forms of teaching and learning tools because many FS students are often resistant to traditional forms of classroom activities which have, for them at least, proved ineffective. With this in mind, the FS tutor needs to be given autonomy to apply the most effective techniques for the maximum engagement. He needs to feel free, that he’s not tied down to a strict programme of delivery set out in a document by his curriculum manager.
As for the design, it is important that FS classes are priortised over students’ mainstream courses. This is because literacy and numeracy matter not only to us but the government and its agencies like Ofsted. So when rooming and timetabling classes, English and Maths should take precedence above all: avoid timetable FS class first thing on Monday morning or last thing on Friday afternoon. Such options usually set students to fail. These are time when everyone – let alone students – are least receptive.
The Functional Skills tutor also needs to exhibit an acute awareness of learners’ barriers to learning. He must have some knowledge of the emotional intelligence and how this impacts the learners. In FS – unlike in any other subject/programme – it is paramount that the tutor has an understanding of his students and why they have been disengaged with formal learning and education. It is not always the case that students have failed at school because they are not intelligent or capable but that the education system is designed in such a way that it alienates certain kinds of student. For instance, some students don’t understand abstract thinking, don’t understand why a particular set of knowledge should be regarded as important. They may also be at a loss as to why so much credence is given to the strict and rigid enforcement of exams and assessments. Of course, these are reasonable objections. Just why do we give so much prominence to academia over vocational or practical skills?
That aside, the FS tutor needs to be a particular kind of personality. He needs to be a counsellor, someone who can express empathy – who can listen, who can see the world from his students’ perspective. He’s a cross between a close relative and a teacher – someone the students respect and trust. It is often when he fails to empathise that he will encounter a clash. In such a situation, the FS students will put up barriers and see you like any other teacher he’s had – busy, intolerant, uncaring individual. To avoid that, the tutor must exercise discretion and compassion. Moreover, students’ dislike of FS (or the tutor) is nothing personal. The subject and the tutor represent their failure. He, in particular, is a figure of authority, a reminder that after 11+ years of formal schooling they have failed.
So why should they focus on English and Maths – the very subjects that make them feel inadequate?
It is for these reasons, classroom management is highly important. So the FS tutor must give students praise above criticism. He must let them feel success, pride and a sense of achievement – the very aspects that are often missing in their lives. He must allow them some flexibility; allow himself adaptability in regard to his scheme of work or lesson plans and ensure they are flexible and fluid. He should plan a scheme of work together with his students. As a group, they should look at the exam specification and objectives and decide the order in which they should be taught and how – what activities and modes of learning they would like. The tutor should share the ownership of both the delivery and contents of the course as well as the teaching and learning styles including differentiation based on tasks and outcomes. Most of all, he must communicate learning aims and goals with his students without patronising or talking down to them. He must set them individual targets and identify your expectation of their progress.
Similarly, the tutor and the class collaborate with each other and establish some ground rules – what the tutor expects and what is not acceptable. Some FS students lack social awareness and etiquette. They are often not sure of civic responsibilities or how to behave in polite society or in public at large. Such skills need to taught or reinforced however obvious they may seem to you. Good manners and behaviour need to be instilled because as Francis Bacon said, manners maketh a man.
Finally the FS tutor should try and help students to take on responsibility. He should develop their obligation as citizens in a multicultural demorcracy. He must teach them about the world, but again without patronising them. He needs to develop collaborative working methods because FS students learn best when they learn from their peers, when the tutor steps back. That’s when it’s truly a work of art, a masterpiece.