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Skills for Life and teacher education: the continuing challenges

Helen Casey of the NRDC notes the work being done to professionalise the existing Skills for Life workforce but is concerned about maintaining the supply of trained teachers in the future.

The supply of new teachers

The face of Skills for Life teacher education, and of teacher education for the learning and skills sector as a whole, continues to change. Developments and ref-orms continue apace, but are we any nearer to having a sufficient supply of capable new teachers of adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL?

Much of the recent focus has been on upskilling and professionalising the existing teaching workforce. The Success for All targets are to achieve a qualified workforce; the LSC Skills for Life Quality Initiative supports the training of existing teachers in the sector. But is enough being done to ensure a continuing supply of new Skills for Life teachers?

The double-bind

There is growing evidence of the difficulties facing prospective Skills for Life teachers. The RETRO (1) project described the double-bind in which many prospective teachers find themselves, being denied access to initial teacher education programmes unless they have already found work, but being unable to find work unless they already have initial teaching qual-ifications. Many potential new teachers are attracted via the high profile national marketing campaigns but a complex nightmare of referrals and re-directions is a common story for newcomers wishing to join the gremlin-banishing workforce.

The available teacher education programmes come in a confusing array of different shapes and sizes, some in universities, others in colleges. The way prog-rammes are funded varies, as do the fees payable by trainees, and the availability of bursaries is so variable that, to an interested newcomer, it can feel like a lottery. Only the determined and the committed are likely to make it through into the Skills for Life teaching workforce.

Revision of the subject specifications

Work on the DfES reform of teacher education outlined in Equipping our teachers for the future (DfES 2004) is currently under way, including new standards for teaching and learning from LLUK (Lifelong Learning UK –† the sector skills council). The good news for many Skills for Life professionals is that the Skills for Life Strategy Unit has recently commissioned a revision of the subject specifications, and a definition of the specialist pedagogies of adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL, to inform the revision process.

However, the reform agenda assumes the contin-uation of a broad in-service and generic model of teacher education, whereas the future supply of Skills for Life teachers may need a different model offering pre-service and subject-specific teacher education.

Ways in to teaching

New vocational teachers in the learning and skills sector will usually find a job and then train on an in-service basis. Prospective Skills for Life teachers, however, often find that, without some experience and qualifications, it can be difficult to get work. An untrained novice ESOL teacher can easily have no relevant experience to use when faced with a class of ESOL beginners. In contrast, a hairdresser, for example, would have experience supervising juniors in the salon, on which they can build while in the early stages of a new teaching/training role.

The need for initial training for Skills for Life tutors before they start work was highlighted by Ofsted/Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) as an issue for action with regard to staff training and professional development.

An initial training programme should be developed for new (ESOL, literacy and numeracy) tutors who do not have a teaching qualification, to introduce them to the essential techniques of teaching before they start work. This should be easily accessible and available throughout the year.
Ofsted/ALI 2003

In the past, many of the 'legacy' teacher education qualifications for literacy, numeracy and ESOL catered for this need for pre-service training, as did the previously common practice of joining the profession through a volunteer entry route.

There are some pre-service programmes available, but few if any offer an integrated package leading to the fully qualified status that a new adult literacy, numeracy or ESOL teacher needs. Many new entrants to Skills for Life teaching are career-changers, for whom a part-time route is preferable. An exploration of the funding options for the programmes may help to explain their short supply.

Universities complain that adding the subject specifications to a Certificate in Education programme nets no additional funds from HEFCE for the extra work incurred. For the college-based provision, the LSC view is clear: staff training is the responsibility of the individual employer. Implicit in this is again the assumption that the teaching workforce as a whole is trained on an in-service basis.

The ITE programmes described by the RETRO project had an essentially in-service structure and ethos, and expected new entrants to find their own teaching placement/employment before joining the course. Where no viable pre-service option was on offer, this was the only route available.

Subject-specific pedagogy

The reform agenda outlined in Equipping our teachers for the future promises more attention to subject pedagogies for all subjects in the learning and skills sector, but limits this only to the role of the mentor. The vision assumes that the large number of different subjects in the sector necessitates a generic approach to pedagogy and to the taught aspects of the teacher education programmes.
Another feature of the 'legacy' teacher qualifications was their focus on the subject-specific pedagogic skills needed by literacy, numeracy and ESOL teachers. When these programmes were created, it was in response to the limitations of the generic programmes for equipping language and literacy teachers.

Today, inspections and a range of research projects are highlighting the lack of pedagogy amongst Skills for Life teachers involved in literacy, numeracy and ESOL provision.

The Ofsted survey The initial training of further education teachers (2) concluded that the 'FENTO standards themselves give insufficient attention to subject or occupational pedagogy' and also commented that 'trainees generally start with good knowledge of their subject or occupational area. However, they have limited expertise in subject pedagogy'. The survey also recommended that ITE programmes should 'give substantially more attention to developing trainees' expertise in teaching their subject'.

Prospective new teachers of literacy, numeracy or ESOL do not start with background knowledge of their subject in the same way as vocational teachers. The subject specifications were developed in response to this difference, to capture the essential subject knowledge, but did not include the subject pedagogy. The subject-specific pedagogies for adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL are now in the process of being defined by the Skills for Life Strategy Unit mentioned above.

The post-reform agenda

The role and position of the pedagogy within the post-reform structures remains to be clarified. In the post-reform environment, the quality of the supply of new Skills for Life teachers will depend on a balance and parity of subject knowledge, teaching skills and subject pedagogy within the teacher qualifications.

An important primary focus of the reform agenda is on broadening its scope to the full learning and skills sector. The new frameworks and funding mechanisms will need to be flexible enough to accommodate the particular needs for subject-specific and pre-service training for Skills for Life teachers. There is much to do to ensure an adequate and continuing supply of competent literacy, numeracy and ESOL teachers, in addition to the many current initiatives which focus on professionalising the existing workforce.†


DfES (2004) Equipping our Teachers for the Future: reforming Initial Teacher Training for the Learning and Skills Sector can be downloaded from www.successforall.gov.uk

Ofsted/ALI† (2003) Literacy, numeracy and ESOL: a survey of current practice in post-16 and adult education.

(1) DfES-funded project led by NIACE in 2003/05.
(2) Ofsted survey HMI 1762, November 2003.

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