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How we ‘found gold’ with ASDAN

Sue Downes was involved with ASDAN from 1990 to 2008, first as a teacher delivering the charity’s programmes to learners before becoming a member of staff at the organisation. She recalls how finding ASDAN was a revelation and discusses the challenges she encountered along the way.

Faced with the dilemma of replacing City and Guilds Foundation Programmes in 1989, I contacted a colleague in another school who was also running what were known as ‘pre-vocational programmes’, which were designed for students for whom a purely academic route was not suitable. The reply was: "I've found gold”, and so she had. We attended an ASDAN meeting at Park Lane College, Leeds, and I never looked back. Roger White, then ASDAN CEO, presented a new vision of teacher-led, teacher-created activities designed to engage pupils in an amazing range of pursuits, challenges and activities.

That was the beginning of what turned into a most enjoyable experience with ASDAN. My very supportive Headteacher at the time gave full rein to ASDAN-related challenges such as running tea parties for the elderly and people with disabilities in the area. The great number of activities undertaken by pupils included organising their own visits to the fire and police stations. At long last, through ASDAN courses, potentially disengaged pupils were achieving success and relative autonomy over their acquisition of key skills. The traditional top-down teacher role was becoming that of an enabler, a creator of opportunities for students to deploy themselves in educational pursuits outwith the usual curriculum while still developing key skills ­– communication, numeracy and IT. The results were astounding in that the whole ethos of learning changed from: “Oh, do we have  to...” to “When can I do...?”

The downside however was Year 9 ‘choices evening’ when parents came to learn about what was ahead for their children. Mine was a very middle class school with the expectation of masses of A*s. With all mine and my students' enthusiasm, it was very hard to stand behind the lectern having produced a magnificent presentation of students on task with a wide variety of activities ranging from running a profitable poultry business to carrying out a study on behalf of the local council into wheelchair access to public buildings and then to hear the inevitable question: "Is this GCSE?" It wasn't then and so numbers of students undertaking ASDAN courses remained low as I watched many students, whose parents deemed the whole thing of no importance, struggle to achieve a handful of low grades. Meanwhile, I and my colleagues gave the outside world well grounded, well prepared, albeit a small group of, young people who could communicate, demonstrate transferable employability skills and show self-confidence.

Sir Mike Tomlinson, former Ofsted chief expector, said: " Why do we regard vocational as being inferior but we rate law, accountancy and medicine as highly valued occupations, all of which are vocational?" These words echoed around educational institutions and, at last, following much campaigning and lobbying ASDAN schemes were given GCSE and A Level points, which meant they counted as performance measures in school league tables. This enabled me to begin a new career. I loved my job in school – I was Assistant Head and Deputy Head and had intended to remain so until I was 60 – but the impetus to guide others through the process by which to deliver an ASDAN qualification (i.e. the newly accredited Certificate of Personal Effectiveness) was very appealing and I applied to become ASDAN Regional Manager for Yorkshire and Humberside.

The result was that I spent four extremely exciting years not just running moderation meetings but actually seeking funding to run many courses for teachers, youth workers, training groups and others in my area so that their clients could acquire those much desired points in the six key skills (teamwork, learning, coping with problems, use of IT, use of English, use of Maths). Again, the emphasis was on teacher involvement and teacher-led curriculum areas. 

Working at ASDAN was a great privilege for me. I worked at a wonderful organisation with extremely accomplished and gifted colleagues and, as intended, I retired at the age of 60 with many memories and the then knowledge that for so many students there was a highly regarded pathway to achievement.

Author: Sue Downes, Former ASDAN Regional Manager for Yorkshire and Humberside


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