Empowering VET teachers and trainers to support learners at risk
How can VET teachers and schools support learners at risk? How can we save young people from becoming Early School Leavers? The Erasmus+ project “Early School Workers” was conceived and carried out to specifically address this issue. With 6 VET organizations, 1 university, 1 European network and 3 public institutions in its partnership, Early School Workers (ESW) was born to innovate VET training by studying best practices, adapting them to different national contexts, and experimenting their peculiar aspects to leave a trace in the partner organizations and in their Regional and National contexts as well.
Core of the project was the English “University Technical Colleges” model. UTCs are technical academies born to narrow the gap between knowledge and skills acquired at school and those required by the job market with the final aim of avoiding unemployment and, before, demotivation and early school leaving. Each UTC is backed by employers and a local university who work with staff to develop an innovative curriculum that gives students first-hand experience of what life is like after school, also integrating three types of learning: technical, practical and academic. A UTC curriculum includes one or two technical specialisms, which are linked to the skills gaps in the region.
At UTCs, knowledge and skills are acquired through the resolution of real problems or projects, and learning happens by means of innovative methodologies that reformulate the space, time, grouping and tasks of education. What is important is that no one is left behind in these schools, especially those coming from disadvantages background and fewer opportunities. There is no selection and no cost in accessing UTCs, they are funded by the Department for Education. They do aim to excellence and maximum employment of their students, but their methods are shaped in order for any student to be able to achieve. A UTC Principal told us that he decided to offer all students breakfast in the morning, since many of them couldn’t have it at home. And if there is something evident about learning, it is that it takes energy!
Small groups are a distinctive feature of UTCs. About this feature, a student said “Moving from a mainstream school with over one thousand students to the college, with less than half the number of pupils, was strange at first but I soon got used to it. Everybody gets on with each other, which will help when we all go out into the working world where you have to get on with everybody even if you don’t want to. The numbers make our class sizes smaller too, which means the teachers can help each student more so everybody understands”.
How students are grouped is a very important decision for the UTC. While there is no right or wrong way to do this, there are some guiding principles.
Some, but not all, UTCs place students in ability sets. When they do, they often wait a term before making decisions which can then be based on the students’ progress and ability assessment. In fact, a guiding principle is that attainment of students in their previous school may not reflect their ability.
But ability sets are not the only – nor necessarily the best – way to group students. At least not at all times. Students are often taught in mixed ability groups. In this case, a guideline is to always have a baseline assessment, not only to enable appreciation of each students’ progress over time, but most basically to personalize learning. In mixed ability groups, teachers may, for example, give assignments to 3 different student levels (A-B-C), each with its own goals and task. The pupil may be made responsible to choose among the tasks. In this way, for example, top students will pick the most difficult tasks and will not get bored and, on the other side, those with more difficulties can follow their own pace and achieve good results as well. Differentiation is another way to put this principle: teach to different groups in different ways so that all can progress.
At UTCs personalised learning is very important: students make progress according to their own possibilities. In a lesson you always have different groups. Everyone should make progress, top students as well as students with disadvantage. A ‘middle’ teaching aiming to the average is not the way to go.
Teachers work as facilitators of the group’s and each individual’s work.
Some UTCs use mixed age groups in employer projects. This approach offers very interesting benefits such as younger students learning how to plan projects from older students, and the opportunity for students to learn how to lead and work in teams of people with different backgrounds and experience. Teams for Project Based Learning meeting a few hours a week for several months generally comprise students’ groups from across the year who have shown an interest in the topic. If a UTC has two specialisms, it may wish to consider how this affects grouping. In some UTCs where specialisms are related to each other (e.g., engineering and construction) students are taught together for a while before they make their choice for a specialism. Even when the projects are less related, e.g., health technology and digital media, involving students in common projects widens students’ experiences.
When students experience the UTC environment their learning is accelerated with respect to their foregoing careers in standard schools. This is why Early School Workers project, notwithstanding the global pandemic difficulties, is being carried out to the end. Several Intellectual Outputs are available, that contain many suggestions and guidelines to not only help learners at risk, but also create a more inclusive and effective educational environment for all.