Learner engagement in a changing world

In a world where teachers stand, at what might be called the intersection of education and social care, learner engagement is a complex business. As with the urgent need to find more fitting assessment models in mainstream education, the current pandemic has thrown engagement into even sharper focus, writes SET Fellow Ian Duckett.

It is concerned, not only with straightforward engagement, but learning and developing skills of employability and enterprise, and is increasingly directed at those on re-engagement and intervention programmes in schools, colleges, alternative provision and home education schemes.

How can learners engage in education when many won’t be returning until September and some may choose not to return at all? As a result, the gap will be even wider than it was before, disadvantage will increase, and schools will find themselves having to repeat parts of the curriculum for those who have fallen behind.


Developing generic learning skills

I believe the curriculum should have been replaced with an emergency curriculum based on stimulating multi-disciplinary, or personal, social and health education (PSHE)/citizenship-based projects aimed at developing generic learning skills, such as communication and problem-solving. It is something that the home-educated and vast army of those excluded from mainstream education provision have faced for years and it provides the idea of what is becoming increasingly known as “build back better”.

Ever since I can remember this has been at the heart of what I have tried to achieve as an educator. As a young teacher reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire as a crusade for humanity and educating, I saw it as an act of love that enabled me to see dehumanisation, both as an historical reality and as an individual experience in the lives of many of the learners I worked with. 

This informed my teaching for many years. As time passed, I saw the matter in greyer terms, but remain wedded to the view that barriers to learning are neither purely educational concerns to be addressed by teachers nor problems to be solved by social workers. In almost all cases they existed and continue to exist at the cusp of education and social care.


A history of this pedagogy

My work in this area has been an on-going project spanning some 40 years, and it isn’t over yet. I have developed a model, which can be divided into five distinct phases:

  • Phase 1: Early teaching career in further education, characterised by an initial teacher education that was guided by what was then called 'student-centred learning'.
  • Phase 2: Engagement in curriculum development initiatives and characterised by flexible approaches and open-ended outcomes which explore pedagogical projects through the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative and Extension (TVEI/TVEE).
  • Phase 3: Developmental work through education action zones (EAZ) and a commitment to the development of generic skills through core learning as a safety net with scaffolding.
  • Phase 4: Projects developed and managed as a development advisor at the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) characterised by a value-added and evidence-based approach and an acceptance that not all assessment models are easily measurable.
  • Phase 5: A more open-ended approach, with pupil referral units and excluded pupils, developed at Shaftesbury Young People, with the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN) and the current Learning and Skills Research Network (LSRN) Ways of Engaging project, which is due to be piloted with Norfolk YMCA in Norwich and is characterised by engagement through personalised objectives and meaningful projects with a negotiated learning framework.

Each phase has been closely entwined with my own personal development – if the first half was generated through Freire, the second half of my learning journey owes much to a teacher exchange to the US and the discovery of the work of Linda Flower on problem-solving strategies for writing. While each new development has been characterised by its own specific themes, the common themes of entitlement, personalisation, skills development and enrichment has been at its heart throughout.


Some research into different ways of engaging

The progression of these ideas in phases 1 to 4 have been described and discussed in peer refereed or other DfE quality assured publications at each stage of their development. The ways of engaging a project is the subject of on-going research.

The earliest experiments from learning programmes at Hackney College and Barnet College were outlined in Reading between the lines: a flexible approach in General Educator in 1995 and more fully in Breadth and the core in the Journal of Further and Higher Education, 1997.

Further work on the nurturing and support of skills through core learning is discussed in Developing a value-added and evidence-based approach to key skills, or, 'measuring the un-measurable’ in Evidence-Based Policies and Indicator Systems, which was based on the earlier work at Barnet College through TVEI/TVEE and progressed through a project around breakfast clubs and excluded pupils with Slough EAZ.

These findings were tested in a range of action research and development projects supported and managed by the LSDA between 2003 and 2005 and published in Developing the Post-16 Vocational Curriculum (2004), Raising Achievement through Vocational A-levels (2004), Delivering the new A Levels within the Post-16 Vocational Curriculum (2005) and Positive Outcomes, improving curriculum design and supporting curriculum change (2005).

Each stage has been driven by a firm belief that learner engagement should determine a curriculum that is meaningful and personalised and one which will foster the development of personal, learning, thinking and employability skills in a safe environment for all 14+ learners.

The latest distillation of this work was based on 14-19 learner engagement projects in the London boroughs of Haringey, Lewisham and Barking and Dagenham. It focused on generic learning skills developed through specialist subject learning and was published as ‘Essential components’ in Delivering Diplomas (Spring, 2010) and a 2010 project at the Institute of Education, titled Tackling the NEETs Problem: Supporting Local Authorities in reducing young people not in employment, education and training.


Towards a conclusion

There are three main curriculum components to this engagement programme in order to make it meaningful in the real world. These strands are leadership, employability and volunteering. It is also designed to deliver the following attributes to all participants:

  • Team-work
  • Target setting and skills for learning
  • Problem solving
  • Language and communication

The Ways of engaging project, among other things, attempts to resolve some the difficulties identified in Tackling the NEETs Problem, with activities such as researching a topic that interests the learner – using the internet, library, newspaper or another route to find out information about a subject of their choice and presenting the information in an interesting or original way. This started with work in alternative education provision in and is currently the subject of a LSRN project, Ways of Engaging, in East Anglia. Some of the activities will be further trialled in LSRN’s Ways of Engaging project with Norfolk YMCA in Norwich.

If ever there was a time for doing things different it is now. Education in the time of Covid-19 is crying out for an engagement or re-engagement programme should be assignment-based and focus on the learner; rather than set, weekly sessions. It is a tailored learning resource, based on agreed, realistic targets that take account of the needs of each individual learner.

Ian Duckett is a SET Fellow and award-winning teacher and resourceful education and training professional with comprehensive experience in curriculum planning, design, and partnership development across the 14-19 sector.



  1. Ian Duckett, Books that change lives: Pedagogy of the Oppressed, InTuition 34, Winter 2018
  2. Linda Flower, Problem-solving Strategies for Writing, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Inc., 1981.


Further reading

  • Ian Duckett, Breadth and the core, Journal of Further and Higher Education 21 (3) 335-344, 1997
  • Ian Duckett, Developing a value-added and evidence-based approach to key skills, or, 'measuring the un-measurable’ in Evidence-Based Policies and Indicator Systems (ed. Coe R.) 96-114, University of Durham, 2001
  • Ian Duckett, Personalized Learning and Vocational Education and Training in Penelope Peterson, Eva Baker, Barry McGaw, (Editors), International Encyclopaedia of Education. Volume 8, pp. 391-396. Oxford: Elsevier, 2010.