As a country we would like all our future employees to be functionally numerate and literate. If you then so, it is imperative that we need to start thinking more about supporting everyone in becoming functionally numerate and that starts with ensuring ALL students have access to high quality instruction and qualifications that enable them to be successful.
In addition, in May 2019 the Augar Review of Post-18 education funding was published and one of the recommendations was the requirement for students to have achieved at least a Grade 4 in English and Mathematics at GCSE in order to access Higher Education funding. The Government reply to this has recently been published and sets out a plan for introducing this requirement. I am not going to discuss this here, as I want to focus on how we can improve outcomes in mathematics for all students. Overall this now means that GCSE resit students in both English and Mathematics in Post-16 education have become even more important.
So what can Post-16 colleges do in order to increase the levels of success in GCSE English and Mathematics?
In 2020 the University of Nottingham published its findings from a 2-year investigation into the issues surrounding specifically Post-16 maths and improving outcomes for these students, (Maths in Further Education Colleges University of Nottingham, 2020).There were 4 interim reports that investigated discrete areas of policy and practice.
Interim 1 – Survey of Teachers of mathematics
Interim 2 – Policy and practice
Interim 3 – Survey of Students
The Final Report combined the 4 interim reports and created 20 recommendations for Post-16 Mathematics Education.
Previously, I have discussed the recommendations from the final report, now, I will try to breakdown one of the key interim reports; Interim Report 2 that aimed to support colleges in developing policies and practices across the whole establishment.
This report had more information regarding current policy and practice and came up with nine key findings from their investigation.
The first two recommendations of this report specifies how colleges should think about their local context and pathways that ensure equality of opportunity. Currently, the progress points system, lack of staff, poor employer awareness and the differing style of questioning in Functional Skills discourages colleges from fully investing in different pathways for students. This can only be done with effective cross-college leadership and institutional prioritisation of mathematics. This can be difficult, as many senior leaders, those with cross-college responsibility, have other priorities and their portfolio would become too large if maths was added. This means that maths will not be a priority across the whole college; why would vocational staff prioritise maths over their own subject?
Policy recommendation 1: Creation of a cross-college management role for Level 1/2 Maths
A typical college policy should include the development of a cross-college management role for Level 1/2 mathematics. Their responsibility should be for the coordination of the curriculum and organisation of Level 1/2 maths. If maths has its own tutors, then this role would include developing formal links with vocational subjects so that issues surrounding behaviour or attendance could be addressed a more timely way than relying on both maths and vocational tutors working independently. Alongside this, the manager would be responsible for liaising with local employers about their numeracy needs and developing appropriate pathways for both students and within the local context.
Policy recommendation 2: Prioritising the timetabling of Level 1/2 maths
Typical resit students have had a poor experience of maths throughout school and as such can find it very difficult to attend maths classes. The timetabling of these sessions need to be carefully planned and should be a priority when creating timetables. Ideally, sessions should be sandwiched between other subjects, so that it becomes ‘trapped’ time and if needed to be at the beginning or end of a day, it should be no more than 1 hour and be as close to other subject as possible. There should not be any maths sessions, where they are the only session in the day or where they are much earlier or later than other subjects.
Policy recommendation 3: Development of vocational tutors’ mathematical skills.
A recently as February 2022, a report on the state of maths anxiety, found the UK had the highest level of maths anxiety in the world, (Disentangling the individual and contextual effects of math anxiety: A global perspective; Hawes, Tremblay & Ansari). This included teaching professionals who were not maths specialists. This current situation does not help improving outcomes for students, when many of their tutors have their own anxieties with the subject. With this in mind, colleges should be supporting tutors with their own mathematical development by providing high quality opportunities and training. This in turn has a benefit of providing another potential maths tutor or even, in colleges which have discrete maths provision, a maths advocate; someone within a vocational section that could support students with maths, a friendly face so to speak. This person could also be part of the cross-college management structure for maths. My personal favourite for this is the use of Complete Maths TUTOR. This platform is powerful in that it creates a personalised programme for every person, that can be monitored remotely by the cross-college manager, meaning vocational tutors can do this in own time and not face the potential embarrassment of attending training sessions. At £52 per annum per person, it represents excellent value and could be part of a college’s professional development budget.
Policy recommendation 4: Effective CPD surrounding Level 1/2 maths for maths tutors
If Level 1/2 maths is to become a priority within a college, then those teaching it should be continuously developing their practice to ensure sesison are of high-quality. In colleges that have discrete maths, then in the main, subject knowledge is well developed, but in order to develop practices, their pedagogical understanding teaching this type of student should also be developed. The cross-college manager should programme specific dates for this training. Again, I think Complete Maths provide and excellent CPD platform, (CompleteMaths CPD) that could be used in a flipped learning style, where maths staff watch a video, discuss it at a meeting, like a book club, and then determine whether it should be part of the department practice.
A necessary requirement of any policy or practice is to be able to measures its success and those success measures need to be made clear to all investors, including governors or trustees and employers. Potential success measures should be focussed on improving the career outcomes of students, although in improving outcomes for students, the college achieves better outcomes for itself as well. Suggested measures that could be used follow below.
Progress points, (not Grade 4+) compared to previous years and national figures – this should be reported to students based upon current attainment (Termly mock assessment). A GCSE Grade 4 would still be the standard for most students, but a GCSE grade 1-3 is still a Level 1 pass, so everyone involved needs to understand that this is a success, but maybe having a Level 1 Functional Skills Qualification sounds better.
Attendance levels, percentage difference to overall attendance – this comparison means that students are highlighted for NOT attending maths, rather than NOT attending college.
These policies could represent a paradigm shift in policy for many colleges, so they would need to be brought in over a period, so that each development could be measured for value and provide time for evaluation, as well as focussing on each policy or practice to being completely embedded across the whole college.
As a maths teacher, I genuinely believe that we have a duty to enable ALL students to achieve and move onto gainful employment and this report has really highlighted the potential improvements that could be made in post-16 education in this area and maybe this could also be adapted to include English as well, supporting young adults in attaining a successful career, whilst providing employers with numerate and literate employees.