'I'm in Birmingham but my students are global'

A revolution in the way people are learning is sweeping through further-education colleges. Ian Nash visits a school that is changing the face of the classroom.

Managing a lesson online for hundreds of apprentices in nine different countries including Russia and China is enough to challenge the best of teachers. But this sort of activity is becoming increasingly commonplace at Birmingham Metropolitan College as it reaches ever wider to meet the demands of a globalised training world.

As in most colleges, Birmingham teachers face tough new challenges and opportunities daily as the latest handheld computers, online developments and social networks change the relationship between students and teachers.

Paul Bamforth, course co-ordinator for the college's foundation degree in counselling studies, says: "You can't expect all students to turn up at lessons and access education in the way they used to. Indeed, some may not be able to turn up at all – for very good reasons such as family and job commitments."

Or because they are in Russia or China, possibly. "If they can't get there physically, how do you reach them?" he adds.

Colleges have always faced this problem because of the spread of academic and job-related courses, the age and ability range and the complex mix of full and part-time students. With the demand for new teaching methods growing too, distance learning is one solution. It's built around LotusLive which provides a suite of materials that gives equal access to all users – lecturers and students alike.

Judging by feedback in the college and conversations on Twitter, the students love it, says Paul, and feel it has given them "ownership" of the lessons.

But in many colleges there is a fundamental flaw in the way in-service training is being designed for teachers to help them cope with this brave new world. A detailed survey of continuing professional development (CPD) in teacher training in colleges and among apprenticeship providers nationally concludes that it's failing to raise standards of teaching and learning with sufficient speed and effectiveness.

There is too much central control, top-down management and an obsession with ticking boxes, says a report by the Institute for Learning (IfL), the professional standards body set up 10 years ago for teachers in further education.

Toni Fazaeli, chief executive of the IfL, says: "Many employers over-manage and structure the continuing professional development for teachers and trainers – thereby squeezing out the very thing they seek: highly effective development leading to brilliant teaching practice."

The solution, she says, is a radical programme of devolution, giving control over the design and range of courses to teachers and their departments. "The poor quality of much CPD undoubtedly had a bearing on the highly critical annual report from Ofsted inspectors recently, which found there was too little outstanding teaching and learning in FE."

Conclusions in the IfL report are based on research involving 220 members and scrutinising records of around 50,000 teachers.

Christine Braddock, principal of Birmingham Metropolitan College, says: "It is not a time for pointing the finger or blaming people. The fact is that for a decade and more nationally, our learning culture was built around an obsession with accountability through detailed checks and tick-boxes. This created centralising tendencies and the belief that ticking boxes alone could lead to outstanding teaching and learning."

Alarmed at the stultifying effects of central control, "which the IfL report neatly identifies", she set about what she believes is a revolution the way teachers improve themselves. Since September, everything at the college "stops" for six hours every Wednesday, as all 1,500 teaching and support staff focus on developing their professionalism. Programmes are designed or chosen by them to meet their needs and those of the college.

Chris Davies, director of teaching and learning, said that having a good chunk of time set aside helps him and other staff to be "more reflective".

The problems colleges now face date back to the early 1990s when they were deregulated and removed from local authority control and began to go it alone. "The idea of a deregulated system simply led to different kinds of regulations and we found ourselves quantifying everything in order to gain the information we needed to show we were having an impact," he added.

While carrying out its study, the IfL has also run a series of seminars and workshops with training guru Geoff Petty. His observations and a study of 30 years research into professional development led him to the conclusion that – at its most effective – it can help raise student achievement by two grades within a year.

It is a startling claim and is yet to be tested in colleges. But Jean Kelly, director of professional development at IfL, says: "I am confident strategies based on recommendations in our report will bring such benefits." Braddock agrees and says: "There are already clear signs of gains being made in our colleges though it is too soon to quantify them."

She insists that it is not rocket science but often simple tasks so many colleges have lost track of. "Sharing good development work is excellent training in itself and should be encouraged. We recommend more time for planning and for effective, collaborative and personalised professional development. Involving the students too in your development activities can lead to a much deeper understanding and better strategies for good teaching and learning."

For Paul Bamforth, the gains are even more basic. "Professional development is now fun and much more useful. You're like a child in a sweet shop with all your favourite sweets on display."

If colleges such as Birmingham Metropolitan recognise the problem and have begun to act, it is clear from IfL's annual review that they are in a minority. Too many offer costly programmes that go nowhere, are not followed up and bear little relation to the true needs of teachers. Typical of the comments in the report were: "The training budget is wasted when, after a training event, people go off and there is no follow-up."

Nor is it lost on the politicians. Earlier this month, John Hayes, minister for FE and Skills, launched an inquiry to be chaired by Lord Lingfield into professional status and teaching standards in colleges. "Has the training on offer done any good," he asks. "In the light of the concerns expressed by Ofsted and the IfL, can colleges learn from the way schools and universities are regulated?"

That inquiry, whose members include David Sherlock, the Government's former chief inspector for adult education, will also ask what colleges should expect from the the IfL, which helps set and maintain FE teaching standards. Hayes insists the prime aim of the inquiry is not to criticise but "to raise the status of FE professionals and give the best support we can to those who teach in the sector".

He sees the actions recommended in the IfL report as central to this. "The IfL's annual report into CPD shows a number of very positive findings, such as wide sharing of good practice across the sector as well as making suggestions for further action."

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