Developing English skills at Suffolk New College

In the second of a series of experience-sharing interviews with managers exploring approaches to tackling some of the many challenges in the management of Functional Skills and GCSE Resit programmes in the post-16 sector, ETF’s Bob Read talks with Louisa Hubbard, Head of English at Suffolk New College, about her approach to engaging vocational teams in integrating English skills development within their programmes.

Bob: What are you currently doing to encourage and support your vocational staff to develop English skills in their lessons?

Louisa: Following comments during our last Ofsted inspection we are having a push on supporting vocational staff to be more consistent and rigorous in the way they mark learners’ written work. We have developed a very simple four element code that they can use: C for capital letters, P for punctuation, Sp for spelling and a question mark for anything that isn’t clear. We ask vocational lecturers to use a box marking approach which means that they focus on just one paragraph rather than the whole assignment. This is to make it a manageable element within their marking workload but one that still addresses some key writing skills. One of our English team, Brittany Kuhn, has also put together a Padlet containing resources that vocational staff can recommend to learners who need help with particular topics.

Bob: In what ways do your vocational staff work collaboratively with your English specialists?

Louisa: This year my manager, Chris Gilbert, was successful in a bid to the government’s Opportunity Funding programme that has enabled us to cover the remission costs for an English and a maths specialist to ‘buddy up’ with a vocational lecturer to identify embedding opportunities within a scheme of work. Each week they work together to look at two or three aspects of the vocational lesson that could be used to develop skills and knowledge relevant to the Level One Functional Skills Maths and English qualifications. We will be evaluating the impact of using this collaborative approach over the year.

Bob: When you or your specialist staff carry out an observation what kind of teaching strategies do you recommend?

Louisa: We are obviously keen to help teachers introduce their own technical terminology effectively, but we also look out for ways in which vocational staff can highlight some of the vocabulary that students will be learning in their English lessons. For example, in a recent beauty therapy lesson the teacher was prompting learners to think of different words to describe the appearance of a skin infection and I discussed with the teacher how this was an ideal opportunity to use the term ’synonym’. Also, we try to encourage vocational staff to support learners in writing longer answers in their workbooks, not just single words and phrases. Often teachers make the boxes for students to complete quite small so that they don’t seem too daunting to students, but we suggest that perhaps teachers could make the boxes larger and offer some relevant sentence starters and connectives so that learners are challenged to write in full sentences and in a more formal style.

Bob: What other aspects of good practice in embedding do you see?

Louisa: It’s important that learners see the link between their English studies at college and their career aspirations. I recently attended a media studies lesson that featured an employer talk by an ex-Suffolk New College student who is now an Art Director at Selfridges. One of the topics he covered was the way he valued the encouragement he received to develop his vocabulary through reading for pleasure at college and how this had really helped him at job interviews and in writing project proposals. As the students could see he had done well in his career his comments had a real impact and we regularly remind vocational staff how important they are in highlighting the value of maths and English in the world of work. The Jobskills section of the BBC Skillswise website is a great resource in this respect as it features managers in a range of occupational areas talking about how important maths and English skills are in the staff they look to recruit and develop.

Bob: How do vocational staff receive support to develop their understand of embedded approaches to maths and English?

Louisa: I wish more time were available on teachers’ initial training programmes to explore the embedding of maths and English skills in more depth as it is such a key aspect of teaching and can help teachers meet the challenge of working with mixed ability groups, addressing additional support needs as well as providing elements of stretch and challenge. We offer staff an opportunity to gain a Level 2 Functional Skills English qualification if they need it and whilst some may be a little reluctant at first, most say it’s a really useful way to brush up their own knowledge of SPAG, language features, etc. All vocational staff have a CPD session from 4.00–5.00pm on Mondays which we use to showcase examples of how maths and English can be developed in vocational areas.

Bob: Are there any new approaches that you are piloting this year?

Louisa: This year we had some visits by external organisations such as FE Commissioners and Landex and whilst they highlighted numerous aspects of good practice, they also noted that students struggled to explain why they were studying different elements of their study programme such as maths and English. Our teacher development team have therefore developed a ‘Links in Learning’ project which challenges college teams to explore ways of supporting their students in gaining a clearer understanding of how their study programme all fits together. At the end of both vocational and English lessons we are using a ‘dual coding’ approach based on a set of icons that highlight when and how learners may have developed some of the seven important skill areas we are promoting: communication, proofreading, creativity, problem solving, proactivity, leadership and resilience (see below).

Graphic highlighting terms representing best practice in developing English skills

If you would like to contact Louisa to find out more about their approach to developing English in vocational areas, please email her at:

For further details of the support available from the ETF for maths and English, please visit our website.

Share this article: