Ross Harley design narrative - large-scale group tutorials in an FE college: or how I learned to stop worrying and wear the penis costume

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Ross Harley
29 March 2017


My previous job was at a fairly typical regional FE college in north-east England as a Learning Facilitator in a Creative and Cultural department. I was on placement there during my PGCE PCET year and was fortunate to walk into a part-time role there not long after I completed my studies. 


2014/15 was my third academic year in the job and by this time I was a full-time employee, primarily responsible for group and 1:1 tutorial provision for around 150 level 2 and 3 students across Music Performance, Music Technology, Production Arts and Art & Design.

My role was also focused on student retention and achievement, and I worked closely with all staff from all levels and departments in the college, but most notably the three other Learning Facilitators in our department, (two full-time and one part-time).  Between us we covered around 500 students, which was about 150 more than 3.5 of us should cover. The part-time facilitator was in my PGCE tutor group so had a similar level of experience to me, another was in the second year of a part-time PGCE through the college and the other had been working in FE for over 20 years.  


When the college announced in summer 2014 that all students would receive at least 3 hours of 1:1 tutorial and at least 10 hours of group tutorial across a 30-week course, we got our heads together to try and devise a solution to the problem of being 1.5 facilitators short.  We felt that the 1:1 tutorials would not be a problem as they could be conducted either via prior appointment or at a moments notice, and because the vast majority of students seemed to find them worthwhile there was no problem getting their ‘buy-in’. 

The problem was the group tutorials. They were distinctly unpopular amongst the creative and cultural students, with very low attendance rates and a lack of appetite for topics unrelated to their main course of study such as health and wellbeing, sexual health, progression routes and financial literacy.

We needed a way to achieve the expected hours and to generate some enthusiasm amongst our students.  To do this we decided to hold large-scale tutorial events for 50-60 students at a time and to hold ten or so of these ‘Big Events’ across a two week period during the three terms of the year.  Each of them would last around 3 and a half hours and at least three of us would be present to deliver and facilitate as required.  


The first thing we did was hold a series of meetings throughout the summer to plan where and when sessions would take place and to sketch out the first Big Event which we scheduled for early October.

We allocated various roles to each other (admin, logistics, staff liason, lesson, resources etc) to ensure that we could deliver coherent, engaging sessions that could be repeated, reflected on and improved.

We worked collaboratively on the content and aims of the sessions and it was surprising how quickly the first session came together. The level of support and interest from other staff was also remarkable, although some of the curriculum leaders were initially cool on the idea - this was understandable given that by the time we discovered the change to the tutorial expectations and devised a response, their course timetable for the upcoming year was subjected to some adjustment.

By the end of the summer we had a session fully planned around the first topic of Progression and had identified two other topics for later that year, Equality and Diversity and Sexual Health.


We expected that the students would be a good deal more enthusiastic about Big Events than regular group tutorials and this was largely true.  During the first sessions in October attendance was fairly high, typically at 75% which was a significant improvement on the regular group tutorials, although once word spread about what was involved and the mystery was dissolved numbers began to drop.

In order to promote cross-course discussion we made each student draw a card upon entry that determined what table they would sit at and although this was partially successful in that it brought some together, the strong reaction of some others meant that we used that technique only in the first session.

Some of the older students did not want to be there and made it quite plain. Gregarious or confident students tended to dominate, particularly in sessions with a large cohort of performing arts students.

The sessions themselves were largely well received, most importantly by the students but also some staff members and the deputy-head who gave us the seal of approval and even arranged a small budget.  Some of this budget was used to buy materials to create a UFO for the second session - we made the design and construction an assessed activity for Production Arts students - and to buy a pack of resources on sexual health and an inflatable penis costume. I still don’t know why I agreed to wear it but I suppose it represents a small legacy of sorts.


  • There’s a fine line between a good idea and a gimmick, particularly if the assessment strategy is not well thought out
  • Collaborative design and teaching of this kind is very rewarding and never really feels like work
  • Making the most of a teaching space and changing it to suit the session can be highly productive and engaging
  • Spending a long time on a learning resource does not automatically make it high quality
  • Regularly entering a room full of FE students dressed in an inflatable penis costume to the sound of “The Stripper” does not do permanent damage to your self-esteem

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