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New ways of engaging needed in education

IAN DUCKETT calls for an educational roadmap out of the pandemic for disaffected learners

IT IS not only disaffected young people who will need a new start as we head out of the pandemic, but it is they who will need a major incentive as well as a broad shoulder to lean on if they are going to be able to engage with further education or the world of work.

As pressure mounts on schools to reopen it is time for a reckoning.  

At the start of the first coronavirus lockdown I was working with excluded pupils, who were often only engaging with learning at all to qualify for a food voucher.  

Weaponising hunger and child poverty is just one of the cruel tactics in the latest version of an extreme neoliberal toolbox.

So far, all government efforts have focused on a “catch-up” curriculum for mainstream school, but a genuine emergency or recovery curriculum is what is needed for disaffected learners and it is going to have to be nothing short of an educational roadmap out of the pandemic, which recognises new ways of engaging for all learners in or out of mainstream schools, including those in alternative provision, participating in home learning or the disengaged.

This means proper interventions and engagement programmes, not the minimalist National Tutoring Programme. 

The newly launched NTP, which the Tories claim is “landmark government-funded, sector-led initiative designed to support schools” and “address the impact of Covid-19 on pupils’ progress and learning” is very far from adequate.

Apart from smacking of patronage and the usual Tory cronyism it does not extend beyond mainstream schools.

While it cannot be denied that there is vast inequality in terms of social class in school, the disadvantage is multiplied significantly when young people in alternative provision and disengaged are factored in. 

The need for proper meaningful intervention

A skills-based and vocational curriculum in terms of the qualities and knowledge that learners will acquire to operate effectively as citizens and gain worthwhile employment remains the focal point for further education colleges and other 14-19 providers.

 Why not put climate change education and decolonising the racist curriculum in the hands of those with a vested interest (something the government often does)?  On this occasion, the learners.

The inadequacy of the government’s response

The government’s inadequate response to the problem led me to revisit some research that drew on my experience as a teacher and manager in further education and alternative provision for those not in education, employment, or training (NEET).

Over a decade ago research projects delved into a wide range of youth engagement contexts as well as previous research and development of case studies around NEET cohorts.

An overwhelming finding was that success depended  on making  a connection with something real and meaningful.

Re-engagement, learning and developing skills of employability and enterprise were the key curriculum components for engagement or re-engagement.

These might include leadership, employability and volunteering.

Personalised and assignment-based, the approach is learner-focused and built on a foundation of agreed and realistic targets that fully takes account of individual learner needs.

Time for a more practical pedagogy

In the time of the pandemic there is need of a more practical pedagogy that is linked to the recovery curriculum for practitioners to use in a variety of ways of engaging with the young people in their care, sometimes planned; sometimes as a means of managing in a crisis; sometimes collaborative, but always as a direct and personalised response to individual learner needs.

While not directly born out of the Covid-19 crisis, some learning activities have been shaped and altered and, in some cases, driven online. 

Now is the time for skills-based curriculum where learners will pursue active citizenship and gain worthwhile employment, developing soft skills such as creativity and problem-solving as well as awareness of rights and responsibilities, and respect for individual differences and where project-based and real-world research are key.

Customised and flexible learning, including aspects of distance learning, is a means to achieving this.

The whole notion of “personalised learning” recognises that teachers focusing their attention on individual learners further progresses their learning and mirrors in the real world, such as the move away from narrow vocational models.

Within the post-14 sector the debate has centred on how best to move from a world where the individual responds to the system and its structures to one where the systems and structures themselves are designed to respond flexibly to individuals’ needs for over a decade.

Ian Duckett is a Norwich-based educator, member of national executive committee of Socialist Educational Association and EC member of Norfolk NEU.


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