Sunday, 14 September 2014

Maths; time for a new recipe


Gosh there’s a lot of ‘education’ on TV now; it’s almost as popular as baking/cooking shows, which in a way is what schools do. Take a wide range of raw ingredients, treat them to a series of processes and expose them to new experiences, and voila … a Victoria Sponge, the finished product.

Except, it isn’t. The ‘product’ is never finished.

The GCSE Victoria Sponge; that most English of sweet treats, so admired by governments, sprinkled with Govian icing sugar and the merest hint of Morgan vanilla, is then the basis for a global range of courses that are sweet, savoury, salty, sour and umami in FE. A menu of such complexity, Matthew Norman would faint with gastronomic gluttony.

Taster menu’s at L1; short, spicy fast food to develop your senses at L2, longer, more complex dishes to season the palate at L3, then delicious puddings at higher levels, each specialising in individual ingredients, developing and focussing on a core skill. FE would surely hold at least three Michelin Stars in the restaurant world.

The GCSE Maths Victoria Sponge, a fine and traditional recipe though it once was, is, whisper it, no longer fit for purpose in Maths. The two layers, Foundation and Higher, glued together with the sweet sourness of the Grade C raspberry jam centre, no longer works. Nor does its flashier cousin, the Functional Skill muffin. Dressed up as a more accessible, smaller bite of sweet achievement, it is actually just a less calorific, saccharin laden bun, decorated and sold as a multi-function, vocational catch-all, but scrape off the distracting toppings and underneath it’s still a flabby sponge.

Flabby sponges, no matter how well decorated are not the basis for a healthy diet. GCSE maths and Functional Skills are no longer the basis for a healthy, successful education.

Yes, basic mathematical skills will always be required; adding, multiplication, subtraction and division are sacrosanct but teaching these in isolation, crammed into a 34 week sugar-fest with only one final product allowed is senseless.

The application of maths, in a range of employment opportunities, fully embedded into vocational courses and included in the grading criteria is desperately needed and shamefully overdue. Maths as a pure subject should always be available for those who wish to pursue it but for the majority of vocational students, that isn’t their aim. They need maths, applicable to their lives and their subject specialism not academic purity, but they do need to be stretched, mathematically.

Treating maths as a punishment … ‘you can’t have any fun until you’ve done your maths’, reinforcing the stereotype of maths as a separate, additional burden on their learning, continues to damage both the reputation of the subject and the enthusiasm of the learner for a subject which is not  just fundamental to higher career aspirations but also to everyday living.

Following my tweet that only 7% achieve the ‘C’ raspberry, from the TES David Russell of the ETF asked me @fossa99 Always was huge issue. Now focus is on it. Massive challenge for the country to support FE sector in tackling this. Can we do it ?

Well, yes David, we can but that Victoria Sandwich and the Muffin, need to be broken down to their molecular level and then rebuilt, to suit the market we work in; the future.

It needs the input of vocational teachers and industry partners to identify the skills students will need to be effective in the workplace; as employees and future innovators.

It needs the input of maths teachers who have long and bitter experiences of watching those sponges deflate in the white heat of the post 16 exam oven.

It needs exam boards to work harder to develop mathematical fluency as gradable criteria in their Pass, Merit and Distinction ladders of success.

It needs mathematical competency built into Initial Teacher Training and PGCE’s.

It needs focussed, trackable, monitored Maths delivery of CPD for all teaching and educational support staff, which should be compulsory and a condition of Professional teaching status.

It needs a realistic, vocationally focussed framework of maths skills for apprenticeships, not 'bolt-on' qualifications.

It needs time. Thirty weeks (when term starts in September and exams in early June) of 2 or 3 hours a week, with a range of abilities stuffed into an end of day class cannot work. The replacement for the GCSE should be a two year, 16-18 stand-alone course, run alongside the vocational qualification and supplemented by the higher and examined maths content of vocational qualifications.

Most of all, it needs the will and the drive of those who represent FE to call a halt to the twenty one years of 7% achievement and in tandem with those of us who despair of the current situation, and we are legion, work together, quickly to put this shameful, abhorrent failure in the past and start preparing our learners for the futures they deserve.

Can we do it?




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