Transitions to Further Education: Crossing the FE bridge
By Rhiannon Packer and Amanda Thomas
Transition is a complex process and the process of transition to any educational setting involves a number of stakeholders. The move from compulsory education into Further Education (FE) is seen as a significant rite of passage and a key element in the process of becoming an adult. Emerging independence and exploration of self-identity are fundamental in adulthood; however, individuals often need guidance and support during this process. There is a wealth of research available on the social, emotional and academic impact of transition on learners, and yet the voices of those most involved in the transition process – the students themselves – often are not heard. We were interested in hearing what those voices had to say about their experiences of leaving school and entering FE.
Traditionally, transition was seen as a one-off event, a visit to the new setting constituting, at best, a small part of the overall experience. Transition processes now encompasses far more than this, with numerous transition events incorporated into the typical academic timetable, This involved transition process can be seen as a bridge, with pillars of support either side for facilitating learners’ journey from A (the school setting) to B (the FE college).
Traversing the FE bridge
Post-school transition can present a challenging time for young people with emerging expectations and conflict in terms of perceived independence both at home and in education. It is a time of exploration in terms of “identity formation, personal values and future aspirations for which many young people need support and guidance” (Morris and Atkinson, 2018, 132). We explored the experiences of transition by listening to the voices of those involved in the transition to further education (FE) establishments, namely practitioners and learners. Listening to the voices of key stakeholders was important to understand how to ensure a smooth transition process and evidence good practice.
The context for the study is South Wales, where FE colleges deliver vocational education and training, in addition to delivering general education for the local areas’ sixth form cohort. FE refers to any post-16 study undertaken that is not higher education. In 2015-16, 133,870 students were enrolled on FE courses, a significant majority of whom were part-time (StatsWales, 2016).
Previous research has focused upon the impact the experience has upon learners, concentrating upon formal schooling (Davis, Ravenscroft and Bizas, 2015; Ecclestone, 2008; Galton and McLellan, 2018; Packer et al., 2020; Perry and Docket, 2011; Sutherland et al., 2010) or transition into higher education (Bradley, 2012, Brooman and Darwent, 2013; Gale and Parker, 2014). There is a gap in the research both in considering the processes of transition from formal education to post-16 provision and in exploring the perspective of learners and practitioners in post-16 settings.
While the bridge analogy is a valuable concept in visualising the transition process, it is important not to disregard the impact of human experiences, social and cultural contexts. The time between transitions, as recognised by Life Course theory (Hutchison, 2011),and the factors that influence decisions made during key moments of transition (Bradley, 2012) are as important as the transition process itself.
Ensuring successful transition enables better retention and engagement with study, as learners are making informed choices (DfES, 2007; WG, 2018). Continued schooling and vocational and professional training remain of primary importance for a skilled work force, careers and social integration (The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, 2018; Maurice-Takerie, 2017).
Research Design: An Interpretative approach
Initial research took place pre-Covid 19 and we returned to the settings to explore the impact of Covid-19 upon transition practices. Findings are also reported here. We adopted an interpretive methodology as framed by Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) Ecological Systems Theory. Bronfenbrenner’s theory cites the learner as being influenced by the environment, relationships with others, and culture. This supports the development of communities of practice (Lave and Wagner 1991; Wenger 1998) in providing a framework for thinking about learning in its social dimensions and the empowerment of those involved to develop a cohesive approach (Packer et al., 2020).
By adopting an interpretive methodology, we looked within the data to interpret participant narratives and how perceived realities have shaped their transition experiences (Coe et al., 2017). Denzin and Lincoln (2000) argue, in interpretive research meaning is disclosed, discovered, and experienced. Therefore, the participant responses were explored, themes identified and interpreted. This approach was purposely designed reflecting the view of “qualitative research as creative, reflexive and subjective, with researcher subjectivity understood as a resource” (Braun and Clarke, 2019, 591). Our epistemological presuppositions were used to enhance understanding of the impact of educational transition in FE.
Data were gathered through online and paper questionnaires, interviews and focus groups. The aim was to uncover the experiences of transition into FE colleges. Practitioners involved in supporting learners during transition were asked for their opinions. 57 participants were identified using purposive sampling, groups were selected according to ability to comment on experiences from different stakeholder perspectives and where there was trust with the researchers.
Emerging themes and a virtual reality
A number of significant themes emerged from these discussions, and were identified as a way to structure our interpretation of the findings drawn from particular patterns of shared meaning across the data set.
Before COVID-19, practitioners from FE settings visited feeder schools and talked with prospective students. ‘Taster days’ and ‘Open evening’ visits to the FE colleges were organised and students available to speak with new students. However from March 2020 FE colleges had to resort to online platforms to engage with prospective learners. ‘Taster days’ and ‘Open evenings’ became virtual events and chat rooms were utilised to hold interviews and address any questions by both students and parents.
In September as restrictions eased, many learners had not visited the FE setting nor physically met staff. Induction and first impressions were important for new learners but social distancing meant inductions took longer. Welcome talks and library inductions became virtual events and learners place into small groups or ‘bubbles’. Meeting large groups of students face-to-face was not possible, impacting upon social circles.
Feedback via questionnaires or feedback in focus groups (these were online while COVID-19 restrictions were in place) gave suggestions on how to improve transition procedures. However, the impact of feedback upon transition practices is not known. Practitioners at one setting expressed concerns that feedback was not collected in a timely manner. The learner voice survey was conducted late in the term and it was felt this was needed directly after induction.
Suggestions for improvements in transitional arrangements (pre-COVID-19) from learners included increased opportunities to explore the new environment in more detail:
“I would have given more time for us to get to know the layout as I still get lost”.
Another learner commented time to meet fellow learners before beginning at the college would have been beneficial:
“I would have more time for us to get to know each other before we started lessons”.
Analysing voices of those involved in transition to FE settings has identified the value of active and supportive relationships between key stakeholders. As learners begin their FE educational journey, time is needed to create opportunities for interpersonal relationship development in addition to academic development. Effective practitioner-learner relationships promote increased engagement and facilitates a sense of belonging, thus ensuring a smooth transition to the new setting. However, the impact of Covid-19 upon these relationships will need to be reflected upon and considered.
Data from: All Change! Best Practice for Transitions. (Critical Publishing, £16.99), and is co-authored with Catherine Jones and Philippa Watkins.
Rhiannon Packer is a senior lecturer in Additional Learning Needs and teaches on both undergraduate and postgraduate courses at Cardiff Metropolitan University. She worked for nine years as a secondary school teacher and was a Head of Year for five years before moving into Higher Education. Her research interests include transition for learners with Special Educational Needs, the learner journey for quiet, shy, and anxious children, supporting learners with Specific Learning Difficulties and bilingualism.
Amanda Thomas is currently a senior lecturer in Early Years Education at the University of South Wales delivering on a range of education modules. In 1997, she began teaching in a Primary school and successfully led the Early Years provision for over 10 years. Amanda also taught in FE for four years training childcare practitioners. Amanda was awarded her PhD in researching schemas in the Foundation Phase in 2019. Her current research interests include Transitions in Education and exploring PhD supervision stories and experiences.
Image Copyright: Divya Jindal-Snape