What makes a great foundation course?

“Courses that recognise the importance of developing learning skills, as well as subject knowledge, may well have the edge”

Foundation courses have been one of the success stories of recent times, with numbers quadrupling over the last five years and more than 55,000 students choosing to study foundation year courses in 2019/20.

“A foundation course should prepare students for university, not just with English language level but also with a mix of academic literacies, study skills, critical thinking and confidence. The aim is to make them feel prepared and ready for the next big step in their academic life,” says Keith Ibsen, deputy academic director, at St Clare’s, Oxford.

The ‘all round’ academic preparation stressed by Keith is picked up by Anna Matthews-Stroud, director of Kings Colleges.

“An absolutely essential component of a top-class foundation course is academic rigour; is this student really getting the in-depth knowledge needed to study at degree level?” she asks.

“Basing a foundation course on a KS5 curriculum is vital to ensure the necessary depth of knowledge and critical reasoning skills are developed. Without these being in place, a student may well struggle to cope on a degree course.”

It is also important to remember that in some cases students are starting a foundation course aged 17. The advantage to the student and the family, of course, is that the student is only studying for a one-year foundation course as opposed to a two-year A Level or IB course.

However, at 17, if the student is coming straight into the UK education system to complete a foundation course, it may well be that they do not have much experience of developing independent learning & critical reasoning skills and a year may not be long enough to have developed their learning skills to excel at degree level.

Therefore, courses that recognise the importance of developing learning skills, e.g., critical reasoning skills, as well as subject knowledge may well have the edge…

Anna Matthews-Stroud adds, “Looking to see which universities accept particular foundation programs is a good way to identify if the necessary all round, academic rigour is in place.”

As most students will want to transition straight from foundation to degree, another key component of a top quality foundation program must be “a rounded offer with careers and university application advice built in”, says Joss Williams, head teacher at Earlscliffe.

Recent placements on foundation programs we have made at UK Education Guide have included a significant amount of prior work with the student before they arrive in the UK to start their foundation program. This work, in conjunction with the chosen foundation provider, not only includes prior selection of the subject pathway the student wishes to study at foundation level, but a clear understanding of the degree subject they also wish to pursue, plus the completion of a first draft of their personal statement.

If a student starts a foundation course in September, there is significant time pressure for the UCAS application to be submitted ideally in late January. Therefore, a lot of planning & thinking must be done in advance of the foundation program commencing to ensure quality higher education decisions are made without distracting from foundation course studies once the program begins.

Notwithstanding all the points above, the basis of any good foundation program aimed at international students is still robust EAL support. Many learners, particularly those who only enter the UK Education system to complete their foundation programs, may struggle with the linguistic demands of a university program, whether this is; listening to lectures, engaging in seminar discussions, or coping with the vast reading lists needed to present a highly rated essay.

Therefore, as Betty Dagistan from Padworth College notes, “It is vital that high quality foundation programs target their English language support directly to the demands of degree study; both written and verbal skills need to be developed and practised so international students can arrive on campus confident that they will be able to contribute to seminars and write high quality essays.”

Certainly, foundation programs offer many advantages and potentially save the cost of one year’s study, but finding programs that really can show students thrive and succeed in their future degree studies is still the measurement that really does count…

About the author: Pat Moores is the director and founder of UK Education Guide .