Pauline Paley tells the human story of the birth of bksb and explains why she is now involved with technical development to bring it to the sector online.
I began my teaching career when I joined West Nottinghamshire College in 1986 as a sessional lecturer in General Studies. My background was in business and it was after the sale of a national concern I had begun and developed that I decided to follow my true passion, education. However, I only wanted to work part-time. (Shall we all laugh together now?)
I was soon swept into the Business Department of the College and by the early 90’s I was coordinating Btec courses (as they were called then). The advent of GNVQs in 1993 brought with them the mandatory achievement of key skills, the fundamental of which were Communication and Application of Number.
Those of you who were around at the time will remember that learners were presumed to possess, and asked to evidence, key skills in order to achieve their GNVQ qualifications. The problem was that they were sadly lacking in said skills at the levels demanded. (Have things changed so much?)
Vocational tutors wanted to ignore key skills and learners hated them – ‘I didn’t come to college to do English and maths again – I came to learn hairdressing/engineering’ and so on were the frequent cries. (Sound familiar?)
The more cynical tutors paid little more than lip-service to key skills in the belief that they would go away and, miraculously, learners all over the nation were awarded them! That is, before external national tests were introduced and the failure rate went through the roof!
However, fortunately for West Nottinghamshire College, during the introduction of key skills I was unaware of the scene elsewhere in the College or nationally and I dutifully tried to deliver and assess them.
Finding it an impossibility to teach all the skills that needed assessing but with no extra time given for this with my 25 to 30 learners, I had to devise an approach. Hence bksb (initially called ‘skillbuilder’) was born.
Over 2 years, I devised diagnostic assessments to determine skill gaps and then resources for all the skills so that each learner could work on an individual learning plan according to their individual needs. – A TOTALLY UNHEARD OF APPROACH AT THE TIME!
You may say that this was not rocket science, just totally logical. I would agree. However, nobody else was doing this or putting in the effort to produce something which could be used by others in their own organisation as a coping and efficient delivery and learning strategy. I was getting results and attendances at skills sessions unheard of elsewhere. Learners were voting with their feet, just as they always do. However, mine were coming to skills sessions rather than ignoring them. I had found the appropriate method of treating them all as individuals and only delivering what they needed rather than a blanket approach which alienated so many.
My approach to individualised learning for key skills came to the ears of QCA and I was commissioned by them to write an appropriate guide for others wishing to adopt a similar approach. Skillbuilder (bksb) pioneered the way nationally and it became the DfES accepted best practice model. At last there was a straight forward solution to the needs of tutors and learners – and it worked! It was also a solution for college managers – at last they had a coherent approach to skills delivery and management.
Recognised as a passionate crusader and sad obsessive, I was offered a newly created role of Cross College Development Manager for Key and Basic Skills – probably the first such appointment in the country. Clearly, either Jim Aleander (Principal at the time) believed me when I said key and basic skills were going to be really big or maybe it was because I was bigger than him! (If you do not know me – see photo!) Whatever the reason, this was an innovative appointment in the mid 1990’s.
Very soon I was being contacted by other colleges and training organisations wanting to buy bksb rather than producing their own product. By this time I had grown the assessments across the key skills levels and was beginning to move down into the lower levels of basic skills. I begged to be allowed to share bksb with others by selling it. Eventually I was told I could do this.
Life really became hectic. I worked as I always had done – as I had for my own businesses in the past. It was twenty-four/seven for me because I believed, ate and slept bksb in addition to my normal College roles. I travelled the length and breadth of the country promoting and demonstrating and being guest speaker at events. This was at a time when no one wanted to pick up the key skills gauntlet so I was in much demand and my name and then WNC became synonymous with key skills.
As I had no private office, staff or answer phone at the College (sounds like the Dark Ages) I gave everyone my home number to call me at night or weekends. Certainly, it was not unusual to find me sitting in bed on Sunday mornings or evenings listening to an hysterical person on the end of the phone having a panic attack and begging for help before inspectors descended on their organisation.
Without the support of my family bksb would never have got off the ground. My husband lived and breathed bksb – he had to because he drove me all over the country so that I could save my energy to speak and present and to make sure we had time together. Additionally, my children could almost recite the questions and answers as they tested the product so many times!
Hopefully, this gives a flavour of how bksb was born and nurtured. It was not a fluke or a matter of luck – it was, as most successes are, due to a certain amount of inspiration and a great deal of perspiration! It was built as my past businesses were, out of passion, a thorough understanding of and caring about the clients, having the right ideas at the right time, choosing a super team and then growing at a rate which was manageable without losing quality.
Movements in senior management and the eventual advent of a new Principal (Di Mcevoy-Robinson) meant some restructuring at College which enabled me to give up internal management duties and become bksb Director. This allowed me to concentrate solely on bksb, expand the bksb team and its development and sales. As leader in its field I needed to concentrate on keeping activities innovative and I’m very proud that I was personally awarded the prestigious NILTA Award for Innovation in 2003.
The rest is, as they say, history! Or is it?
Di (Principal) was a true enthusiast of bksb who shared my passion for innovation and motivational methods. When I approached her with my vision of moving bksb forward and utilising technology more effectively, for the benefit of learners, tutors and management, she was truly excited by the notion of bksb Online. We both wanted to move the product forward according to the increasingly complex needs of clients and the more sophisticated expectations of learners.
To achieve these aims and bring reality to my latest vision, ForSkills became the technological company charged with the development of bksb Online and its technological support and training. Just over two years from the initial concept, bksb Online was launched at BETT in January 2007. Response from the sector has been excellent and clearly the right boxes have been ticked thanks to all the input received from clients during development.
The College has now decided to continue its bksb provision as a paper and CD product only. However, ForSkills is continuing to provide bksb Online. They are also continuously developing the technology onwards and upwards, according to the needs and wants of the bksb Online clients (ie those using both bksb paper/CD plus bksb Online and those who simply prefer to use bksb Online).
I retired from the College in the summer of 2007 and left my ‘bksb baby’ in the hands of the Unit I had also cherished and nurtured. However, I have a new ‘baby’ to care for – that of bksb Online. As the Education Director of ForSkills I am looking forward to seeing my latest vision being embraced by the sector with the same enthusiasm as my original one. However, this time I am starting part-way down the road as I already have a fantastic team around me so my husband will no longer have to taxi me around or ask for an appointment! But, if you want my number I’ll still give it to you -old habits die hard!