Richard Evans is the Chairman of the CIPHE’s Education and Training Group. In this issue of ETM, he continues the theme of exploring various elements of vocational qualifications and their relationship with teaching technical and vocational programmes in Further Education.

Technical and vocational

One of the many strengths of the FE sector and its staff, is their recognition of the importance of context in teaching technical and vocational programmes. One of the challenges of teaching in FE, is the need to address the development of a vocational focus in curricula, particularly the content of the material and the critical aspects of ‘how’ and ‘why’ it is taught and learnt. It is essential that the teaching and learning methods and the environments in which vocational and practical topics are set, are appropriate and seen by the learners as being relevant to their course of study and future employment intentions and aspirations.

The welcomed current focus on the vocational curriculum has resulted in the development of revised programmes and frameworks for apprenticeships and the introduction of the concept of functionality in mathematics/numeracy and literacy. For these developments to be truly effective, they must emphasise the centrality of context in the curriculum and the learning experience.

To assist the debate let’s define some terminology:

Context – Associated surroundings and settings/the circumstances relevant to something under consideration and significant to its true meaning.

Functionality –The capacity to be practical and functional/specific application.

As has been discussed before, the so-called academic route i.e. GCE/GCSE/ Degrees, has always been perceived as superior and attempts to establish parity of esteem (see previous article in ETM), between the academic and vocational routes have successively failed. Indeed some academics have stated ‘the context makes no difference to the learning and teaching process and that it can be distracting from the subject’. So does this mean that subjects taught in a practical environment are non-real? How can appropriate teaching and learning environments be created for many subjects in the relevant vocational context?

Two distinct, but related aspects need to be recognised and carefully configured, comprising the basic topics and the application of those topics into a particular vocational setting.

Firstly, all learners need to be competent and confident in the basic elements of the subject/activity. The second aspect is the application of these basic elements, as required in particular employment areas. The first challenge is to make the connection between these two essential aspects, particularly the relevance for the learner – namely the value and relevance of the basic operations and their subsequent application in an employment context/ setting.

To attempt to highlight the importance of context/functionality of a particular subject, I will focus on mathematics. All subjects require varying degrees of numerical/ mathematical competences and this can present major challenges to teachers/ tutors, particularly if the students show a dislike to the subject because of previous poor teaching in schools. The next complication is the wide diversity of the mathematical requirements across the multitude of occupations.

For example, one only has to identify the importance in work of a number of mathematical topics required in plumbing and heating engineering. Essential topics identified include conversions involving percentages/fractions/imperial and SI units, transpositions, estimation and the need to understand the importance of tolerances/errors, etc. Many teachers and tutors in FE have for decades succeeded in getting students to understand and adapt mathematical operations to their work environments. Many of these teach- ers have worked in those employment areas, or are part-time tutors still active in the relevant industry or service and as a result fully appreciate what is required. They have to have direct experience of the applications and teach those elements in the appropriate environment/setting.

Much can be achieved to establish the correct context through simulation or more effectively in real working environments (RWEs) or whether in practice/assessment booths. These approaches immediately present problems for the institution and the teachers/tutors, particularly in regard to resources e.g. financial, human and physical. Institutions need to provide adequate resources and infrastructure and be fit for purpose to support the teachers/tutors.

Other approaches in realising appropriate contexts are work experience/placements and sandwich programmes, which strengthen the links with industry and FE. Apprenticeship programmes have the advantage that they are predominately work-based with opportunities for release to colleges to complement and add value to the direct experience in the work place.

In summary:

In order for the current development of vocational programmes to be successful, a great more attention needs to be given to context and functionality. It is also essential that employers and college staff are directly involved in the development of the curriculum and delivery frameworks.

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