“Our aim at College is ‘to create the extraordinary’ and our vision is that all of our students will have the best learning experience possible and achieve beyond their expectations.”
Last month, Nelson and Colne College won Provider of the Year at The Skills Awards 2020. We recently interviewed Fionnuala Swann, assistant principal for academic curriculum, to get a better understanding of how the college provides excellent English and maths teaching, the challenges they have faced along the way, and what advice they could give to other colleges.
Q1. Could you provide a little background to Nelson and Colne College?
Nelson and Colne College Group is a high performing, ambitious organisation. Expertly led by Principal and CEO Amanda Melton, the college’s Staff, Governing Board and Leadership Team have set and driven challenging targets.
Through passion, creativity, rigour and diligence we deliver year on year improvement, growth and most importantly, highly successful students and apprentices. The success of our communities, employers, partners and economy sits at the heart of all we do. We have forged valuable partnerships and a shared vision with like-minded organisations, employers and individuals, creating a network of opportunity and excellence. Our highly skilled staff are committed to raising and supporting aspirations, providing social mobility, and creating an essential talent pool for the local, regional and national economies.
In 2013, the College became the sponsor of the Pendle Education Trust, comprising three primary and two secondary schools. The Trust is now delivering exceptional progress: our primary schools are in the top 2% in the country for writing and the top 3% for maths.
The College has expanded since 2016 to include Lancashire Adult Learning, which delivers adult skills education across Lancashire to over 14,000 learners. In 2018, Accrington and Rossendale College also joined the Nelson and Colne College family.
Q2. How important is college culture to deliver effective learning – and how has the culture at Nelson and Colne helped to deliver effective English and maths learning?
We believe a college culture is imperative to delivering effective learning. Our outstanding results are achieved by a commitment from the Senior Leadership Team to prioritise English and maths at a whole-college level.
We timetable three hours each of English and maths per week for students who need these. They take priority with a student’s chosen subject fitting around them, and rooming put aside for mock GCSE exam weeks.
There is a culture of shared responsibility and accountability for English and maths, which is a standing agenda item during all college meetings. Robust reporting systems are also in place to enable regular monitoring of attendance and progress which is discussed at all levels: SLT, Heads of Division, and Curriculum Leaders. All vocational tutors likewise receive weekly ‘Vital Signs’ reports regarding attendance for English and maths and homework completion.
Excellent up-to-date MIS systems are in place in order to track student data, and English and maths ‘link’ teachers are allocated to each vocational area to attend weekly meetings. English and maths Curriculum Leaders attend regular vocational curriculum meetings, and retain close links with the Foundation Programmes division.
In addition, embracing assessment for learning strategies has been invaluable too. Initial assessments, weekly tests, homework tasks and mock exams are built into schemes of work. Importantly, the student’s personal tutor for their vocational programme takes ownership of progress in English and maths, reflecting the whole-college approach.
This culture has led to the achievement of exceptional results, and this is borne out by the fact that Nelson and Colne College has been number one nationally for GCSE maths, based on progress, for three consecutive years, and has also consistently been in the top three colleges nationally for GCSE English progress during that same period.
Q3. What were some of the main challenges your college encountered in providing English and maths learning?
Our main challenge over the last few years has been poor attainment in local secondary schools, because this has caused many students to arrive at college without GCSE English and/or maths at Grade 4 or higher.
In 2019, our progress score was +1.02 for maths and +0.51 for English, and we achieved a GCSE maths resit pass rate of 62% in maths and 51% in English (grade 4+). Respectively, these are 44 and 24 percentage points higher than the national average, against a backdrop where Pendle in 2015 had the lowest proportion of students (44%) achieving five or more A*-C grades, including English and maths, in Lancashire.
To address low achievement rates, we work closely with the six secondary schools in Pendle (the borough where Nelson and Colne College is located). To help overcome some of these challenges, for example, five of those six schools are now aligned to the same GCSE English awarding body we use to ensure continuity should a student fail at the first attempt.
Another challenge has been ensuring that we have the excellent teachers who are vital to achieving these exceptional results. We invest heavily in our teaching staff, and our strong reputation and competitive salaries mean that we are able to recruit outstanding teachers. CPD opportunities are regularly accessed by the team to ensure they are abreast of any external updates.
Q4. What would your recommendation be to other colleges and/or training providers on how to develop great English and maths teaching?
Investment in the continual professional development of curriculum teams is a hugely important aspect, as is the recruitment of a passionate, knowledgeable and enthusiastic English and maths teaching team who are committed to improving pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning.
At college, we have added impetus to our curriculum team’s CPD in the current academic year with our comprehensive teacher centred ‘Be Phenomenal’ development sessions.
Our aim at college is ‘to create the extraordinary’, and our vision is that all of our students will have the best learning experience possible and achieve beyond their expectations.
This absolutely depends on sustaining and developing teachers as experts. For 2019-20, we have created a new team of 12 Advanced Practitioners who inspire curriculum colleagues to engage with the very latest research and practice around teaching pedagogy. In addition to this, learning walks and peer development activities provide excellent opportunities for rich, professional discussions regarding existing teaching practice.
Q5. Are there any specific cases where learners performed outstandingly well in their English and/or maths?
We always see students achieve remarkable results in their GCSE exams. In 2019, for example, Farwa Khan Shaheen, who joined Nelson and Colne College in September 2018 as an ESOL student, worked incredibly hard to quickly achieve her Level 2 Functional Skills qualifications in English and maths. She also showed a particular talent for the latter, and she proved this by going on to achieve a grade 9 in her GCSE.
Another 2019 high achiever was Ben Butterworth who achieved a grade 9 in GCSE English and a grade 8 in GCSE maths. He started at Nelson and Colne College on Level 1 having been home schooled because of severe anxiety. Although he could have jumped straight to Level 3 after his stellar results, he progressed on to Level 2 Engineering first to develop his knowledge as he works towards a career as an engineer.
Our GCSE resit provision supports students of all starting points too. Fardin Ahmed, who now studies Medicine and Surgery at Newcastle University, was one of those to benefit from it during the first year of his A Levels. He achieved a grade 8 in English Language in 2018 having asked to resit his exam.
Fardin said: “I got a grade 7 in my English Literature at secondary school but only a grade 5 in my English Language. I needed a grade 8 because I wanted to study medicine.
“I really got my head down and worked hard and I think a big factor in that was my teacher. I really enjoyed the classes and the one-to-one support I received was very good. The teachers here at Nelson and Colne College are great and do their best to ensure students achieve and get the grades they need.”