I have been asked to write a blog on what I had learned from recently taking – and thankfully passing – the ISEB/BCS courses in FOIA and DPA. Maybe I internalised the legislation too much, but for some reason I could only think of addressing it in terms of 8 principles:
1. Start from scratch
Whilst you may have a lot of knowledge and experience in FOI/DPA, try and go back to square one and approach the Acts like new legislation. You may find that, due to the demands of your sector and your role, you know different areas of the relevant Act much better than others. The syllabus leans towards no sector in particular so picking up the legislation again and starting from scratch can really help. Some of the areas I knew least about at the start of the course became the basis of my strongest essay answers.
2. The pen is mightier hard to write with than the keyboard
Writing legibly is one thing. Writing legibly for three hours is a whole different matter. If like me, you are so used to rattling away on a keyboard that you get cramp scrawling a shopping list, then it is time to do some training a good few weeks before your course starts. Start by trying to write a few pages of longhand, even if it is just copying some text. It is worth the effort. Investing in a couple of decent pens really helped my writing, which has never been the neatest.
3. Do your homework!
…as my mum used to shout! This is tough. You may feel inspired by the session and then find yourself back in a hectic day job, and suddenly training day comes round again. Try and find time for it, either over lunch at work or blocking time in the evenings. I knew people who wrote essays perfectly well on the tube – I don’t know how! The homework essay questions are essential to get back into that mode of constructing an argument and recalling facts. Avoid the ‘I did the essay in bullet points’ approach; presenting the argument in paragraphs and prose is as much part of the exercise as knowing the key points. It helps with principle 2 aswell.
4. Expand your mind
Many of us will make use of the ICO’s website or the JISC lists to pick up the latest information. For your exam and for your overall working knowledge it is really worth doing some ‘wider reading’. For matters FOI/DPA there is luckily a thriving blogosphere and twitterati (is that even a word?) to follow the latest developments. This is especially important for the DPA ISEB, where knowledge of the case law is vital. I found the following really useful (in no particular order) – there are many more:
Act Now Training http://www.actnow.org.uk/
Information Rights and Wrongs http://informationrightsandwrongs.com/
FOI Man http://www.foiman.com/
2040Information Law Blog http://2040infolawblog.com/
Data Protector http://dataprotector.blogspot.co.uk/
David Higgerson http://davidhiggerson.wordpress.com/
Campaign for Freedom of Information http://www.cfoi.org.uk/
5. Enjoy the group
In both the DPA and FOI ISEBs, I have been really lucky to be in with a friendly and supportive group of co-students. The benefits of this go way beyond the practicalities of preparing for the exam. It is re-assuring to meet others who have faced the same challenges and problems. They may have tried different approaches to policy or procedural questions. Chat to the person next to you!
6. Don’t mock it
The mock exam is one of the most important parts of the whole course and invaluable in preparing you for the big day. You can do an essay question for homework under exam conditions but it won’t prepare you for starting the same question with only half an hour left on the clock and 25 pages of writing behind you. Treat it as much as possible like a real exam. Even going through the basics in the mock helped (e.g. how to fill out the multiple choice paper). It means that on the exam proper you can focus your stress on the questions themselves. I also learnt that eating an entire packet of mints in 3 hours would not necessarily enhance my exam performance.
Forget DVD box sets or the football on TV for a few weeks – you have to make the revision count. Go for everything you can fit in: practice questions, podcasts, online seminars. I personally had a lot of difficulty with the Section B ‘bullet point’ questions, which rely on memorising information (e.g. the headings of the FOIA s45 Code of Practice). I found refuge in the humble index card to get the basics down and had friends or family test me. Make the time for yourself – you will reap the benefit come the exam.
8. Treat it as more than just a certificate
Education is becoming increasingly seen as a commodity, something you pay for and get a return from. Fair enough, the ISEB works like this. Work hard and get your certificate. And yet, like all education it does so much more than that. It fills you with ideas to take back to your workplace, makes you think about where you can take your new-found or rediscovered study skills (more part-time education or qualifications?) and develops contacts and networks with other practitioners.
Kit Good is University Records Manager and FOI Officer at the University of London. He has successfully completed both BCS (ISEB) courses with Act Now. Follow Kit on Twitter: @kit_urm and read his blog: http://allabouttherecords.blogspot.com/
More advice about BCS ISEB and how to pass here: