Reflections on Learning Resources.

(Colleges and Providers).

Dick Evans. Educational Consultant

ABSTRACT: A reflection on the wider implications of the Learning and Skills legislation and developments in the Further Education Sector reinforces the centrality of the learner. The Inspection System has progressively moved colleges towards this perception for a fuller understanding of the significant role of Learning Resources, however defined. This theme, which has consistently been promoted by the LRDG in publications and conferences, should now attain its full significance.

As a result of a recent LRDG conference on the impact of the common inspection framework I reflected on the wider implications of the Teaming and Skills Bill on the operation of learning resources within the new landscape of planning, funding and inspection of post-16 education and training. The landscape is shown in figure 1 below:

fig01.

fig01.

One immediate consequence of these important reforms is that the Further Education sector has ceased to exist as a separate entity becoming a part of the extended network of providers. In addition there is now a greater number of organisations involved in the management of providers which in time will impact significantly on the way inspections are conducted and the results are actioned. For example, providers will, depending on the range of provision, be subjected to an increased number of inspections conducted by the Adult Learning Inspectorate and Ofsted. The main purposes of the inspections are to:

  • Give an independent public account of the quality of education and training, the standards achieved and the efficiency with which resources are managed.
  • Help bring about improvements by identifying strengths and weaknesses and highlighting good practice
  • Keep the Secretary of State, the Learning and Skills Council for England (LSC) (E) and the Employment Service (ES) informed about the quality and standards of education and training.
  • Promote a culture of self – assessment among providers, leading to continuous improvement or maintenance of very high quality and standards.

The Local Learning and Skills Council (LLSC) will be a major player in the follow up to the inspections and how the results are actioned. The various government initiatives such as Learn Direct Direct (UfI) and New Deal (ND) will be inspected and the Area Inspections will provide additional evidence of the effectiveness and efficiency across the spectrum of providers.

Colleges must make sure that there is an equality of opportunity and learning experience for all these different learners on their programmes The inspections will focus primarily on the experiences and expectations of individual learners through the evaluation, as applicable, of:

  • What is achieved the standards reached and learners’ achievements, taking account of their prior attainment and intended learning goals.
  • The quality of teaching, training, assessment and teaming.
  • Other aspects of provision that contribute to the standards achieved, such as the range, planning and content of courses or programmes, resources, and the support of the individual learners.
  • The effectiveness with which the provision is managed, its quality assured and improved, and how efficiently resources are used to ensure that the provision gives value for money (VfM).
  • The extent to which provision is educationally and socially inclusive, and promotes equality of access to education and training, including provision for learners with learning difficulties or disabilities

The key question that the inspection should attempt to answer is:

How effective and efficient is the provision of education and training in meeting the needs of learners, and why?

Seven key questions, set out under three broad headings, will guide the inspection:

ACHIEVEMENT AND STANDARDS.
1. How well do learners achieve?

THE QUALITY OF EDUCATION AND TRAINING.
2. How effective are teaching, training and learning?
3. How are achievement and learning affected by resources?
4. How effective are the assessment and monitoring of learning?
5. How well do the programmes and courses meet the needs and interests of learners?
6. How well are learners guided and supported?

LEADERSHIP AND MANAGEMENT.
7. How effective are leadership and management in raising achievement and supporting all learners?

Clearly question 3 is important to the staff in learning services but the other questions will implicitly or explicitly explore associated aspects of the quality of learning resources so it is important for learning resources staff to he aware of and involved in the whole process of inspection both before and during the event. One very important aspect is that inspectors will be assessing the impact of the colleges policies/strategies systems i.e. how these have been implemented. They will take it for granted that the college possesses a comprehensive set of documents and want to identify the impact of these. This brief overview of the inspection framework provides an opportunity to reflect on the future role of learning resources within providers and to revisit many of the issues that have been highlighted by learning resource professionals over the past few years to assess their relevance in the current and future climate.

Reference will be made to the inspection process to highlight and reinforce the issues and for convenience the title ‘college’ will be used to cover all possible providers involved in post 16 education ami training Some of the recurring issues previously identified in LRDG conferences and journal include:

  • How effective are links with the other management touts of the college e.g, curriculum and support?
  • Do links exist between learning  centre staff and the curriculum team?
  • Are learning centre staff on key college/ management units committees/groups e.g. Academic Board, curriculum teams and development, course/programme reviews, quality committee. Learning and Teaching committees etc?
  • Is the central learning unit directly involved in drafting planning/strategy documents e.g. learning policy, accommodation strategy, ILT policy etc.?
  • How effective is the management and coordination between central learning resources and the dispersed specialist learning resource workshops/facilities?
  • How effective is the management and coordination between central learning resources/dispersed specialist learning resource facilities and the IT facilities across the college ?
  • Do effective partnerships exist between the central learning unit and external organisations e.g. schools, employers, anil the community?
  • Does the college recognise the training needs of learning centre staff to develop new roles e. g. information professionals, mentors, learning support, soft/hardware support, help desks?
  • Are central learning staff aware of and involved in local, regional and national initiatives e.g. learn direct, national grid for learning, national learning network for FE, public libraries/museums network etc?

It can be seen that the inspection is focused primarily on the learner and is concerned about making judgments about the quality of the learning experience including of teaching and support for the individual learner. As a result of these approaches and processes within the inspection learning resources are now located centre stage. Too often in the past the services provided by the ‘library/learning centres ‘and their staff have been perceived as marginal or a bolt on to the activity being carried out in the classroom and laboratory i.e. direct teaching, This unfortunate fact and many others have been highlighted over many years by LRDG, which quite rightly has advocated the centrality and importance ot learning resources in colleges. Therefore in order for colleges to contribute to and influence the new arrangements a fundamental rethink about the way learning resources within a college is recognised and involved in the new era of the learning and skills landscape is needed. One immediate effect is to make certain that staff are directly involved at the highest level in planning and preparing for inspections.

The inspection process will track the learners’ experience across all of the services offered by the college. With the increasing use of independent study and separate specialist facilities this could precipitate a number of challenges to the provider and staff in the central learning unit. In particular the development of specialist workshops in curriculum areas although welcome must be managed and coordinated effectively and efficiently Fundamental issues now need to be addressed as a matter of urgency many of which have been raised at LRDG conferences over the past few years in regard to the management ot dispersed learning units. Questions about access i.e. opening times, security, staffing and the integrity of the learning materials book and non-book. One problem with these developments is the danger of the units developing separately from that of the corporate strategy for learning resources and support What can happen is that the curriculum units see thern as their exclusive responsibility and as a result wish to staff and resource them separately without recourse to the college’s overall provision.

Although there may be worthy intentions in this trend it can create problems in a number of areas that could be identified by inspectors, in addition to the major issues associated with the integrity of the learning material including cataloguing, a significant problem exists about access to these facilities. The inspection framework stresses the importance of access – if the provider offers these facilities then it is essential that opening times and staffing are fully understood by the learner. Effective coordination between the central learning resources unit and these dispersed units is essential otherwise real concerns will be highlighted during the inspection. All the units must be seen to present a consistent and coherent system to the learner and complement each other to offer opportunities for access for all learners. Published reports already mention the quality of some of the book stock e.g. the age of the material or how often the books ait used. Even now shelves carry material which contain redundant and/or obsolete information and which is infrequently accessed. Learning material book and non-book must be maintained and continually audited – quality standards must be set and learning resource staff should play an important in maintaining these standards. They should not be fobbed off by teaching staff who inevitably want to collect and retain massive collections of questionable material and boast about the “number of volumes’ to visiting revalidation and validation panels. The quality of the material should override the quantity otherwise the inspection report will highlight negatively on this aspect i.e. quality NOT quantity.

Colleges are now developing dedicated units for basic and key skills which arc very resource nch and require effective management and control and these areas are seen as being of great importance by the inspectors. In order to improve coordination, communication and the management across ihe college and the management units staff in the central learning centres should be linked with curriculum teams and other key groups in the college. Many colleges have already introduced this approach but it is by no means universal. It is also important that the arrangement possesses reciprocity namely the central learning unit invite start’ from the curriculum units to their meetings. With the increasing involvement of colleges with community groups links also need to be forged with these groups in order to improve the quality and access of the service. Many of the published inspection reports highlight the quality or otherwise of colleges’ outreach and community work.

One recurring theme in the inspection framework document and the published reports is the quality of accommodation and learning resources whether central or dispersed they are intimately related. Too often outreach facilities are cited as being housed in inadequate accommodation. Also some reports draw attention to dingy accommodation provided by the curriculum units for their specialist resource facilities even if the learning materials are adequate. These aspects reinforce the need for central learning staff to be involved in drafting the colleges accommodation strategy – after all there is a direct correlation between the learning environment and learning experience.

The government’s agenda for education and training rests on three key pillars, namely:

  • Standards
  • Skills
  • Widening participation.

This will require all college start to develop new roles. The continuing impact of the new’ learning technologies will require all staff to reappraise their teaching styles and more fully recognise the learning styles of the individual students. With widening participation the learner population will become more diverse and staff will need to recognise and manage the resultant differentiation of need across the groups. Most colleges continue to experience financial problems and difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff and this unfortunate fact will result in fewer start delivering reduced contact hours which in turn places a greater emphasis on independent study for the learners and the use of information learniug technologies. Staff development programmes will become even more important and it is essential that the needs of staff in central learning units are fully recognised and clearly articulated in the college’s human resource development plans.

Summary

Hopefully the commentary above has highlighted the importance the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) attaches to learning resources and has emphasised the centrality of the service and its staff. In order to respond to the challenges set by the inspection, colleges, if they have not done so before, must review the involvement of the learning resources unit and its staff in all aspects of the inspection both prior to and during the event and most certainly be involved in the follow up action plan which will bring about continual improvement to the quality of the service offered by the college.

The following check might prove of value:

  • Effective and efficient communication must be in place before and during the inspection. (“Make certain that the college has established a team of staff overseeing and managing the arrangements. During the inspection make certain that a member of the learning resources staff networks with other staff across the college particularly the college nominee to monitor progress and identify emerging issues and concerns ).
  • Learning resource staff must he involved in the preparation and have ownership of all the documentation prepared for the inspection particularly the self assessment reports (SARs).
  • Make certain that rccordx/minutes of meetings held by the learning resources units exist and are up-to-date and that these include any other records of their involvement in curriculum teams or cross college committees/groups.
  • Staff to be aware of other local, regional and national initiatives e.g. learn direct, national grid for learning, national learning network for FE, public libraries/museums network. IT and community learning centres.
  • Establish effective partnerships with external organisations e.g. schools, public libraries and if appropriate employers and community groups.

Finally:

Take nothing for granted and be prepared for anything.

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