Sunday, 14 September 2014

Selling our learners short

Extra funding was intended to boost maths teaching in FE, but a topsy-turvy approach to using it could lead to a ruinous skills void.
Concerns about the sorry state of literacy and numeracy in England – from CBI surveys and Alison Wolf’s damning 2011 report, for example – have spurred the government and educationalists to push for improvements in further education. More qualified staff, better embedding of numeracy into vocational subjects and a greater emphasis on maths and English as career essentials are among the strategies.

To this end, funding has been allocated for the employment of new maths graduates as expert teachers, and many institutions have applied successfully for this extra cash. Although the money may have been conceived as a “golden hello” to encourage talented mathematicians into the teaching arena, in my experience many college leaders are using it to pay the salaries of non-specialist recruits, thus saving on their wage bill.

This is not the only way that colleges are dealing with the challenge of trying to meet the Wolf recommendations with reduced funding. To make timetables financially efficient, and to save on salaries, hundreds of unqualified staff are now teaching maths and English. The functional skills part of the course is often taught by vocational staff, who are well qualified in their own areas but have no experience of teaching maths.

Meanwhile, qualified staff find themselves redundant or “fractionalised” as their subject is broken up and distributed to others in order to save cash. And those others are now teaching subjects outside their comfort zones. Was this really the desired outcome of the drive for mathematical excellence? As with many strategies, it looks good on paper: move a few bodies around, plug the gaps and off we go. But the ramifications for learners and staff are ignored.

On the road to nowhere

Most colleges buck the Pareto principle when it comes to maths qualifications: 80 per cent of learners study functional skills and 20 per cent study GCSE, but that 80 per cent requires more than a 20 per cent investment. It may well be the case that staff costs are at a premium and funding at an all-time low (with the prospect of a further fall), but that does not justify what we are doing. Fewer and fewer learners are enrolled in GCSE maths and are instead signed up to a level 2 functional skills course – a “safer” qualification that can be taken as many times a year as necessary until they pass.

Is this the best option for students and their future employers? What happens when that learner wants to take an HND or a degree and needs to know Pythagoras’ theorem? Functional skills has no content that will allow for this: no Pythagoras, no trigonometry and no value in a huge range of careers, from healthcare and medicine to engineering and research.

Adults wishing to return to education are refused entry to GCSE maths and enrolled on stand-alone functional skills courses that they must pass before taking their course of choice, which they are paying for. Nineteen-year-olds who were never advised to retake their maths and English GCSEs and have progressed to level 3 cannot move on to the next course. They do not have the opportunity to obtain funding for retakes. They are cast adrift.

But financial needs must be met, so changes are instituted. Functional skills is allocated even fewer hours on the timetable – just one hour in some cases – and this is blamed on “more embedding” in vocational subjects and greater demands on vocational staff because of the new BTEC requirements. Is one hour a week enough, even when taught by an expert? No. And the outlook is worse for students taught by a non-expert.

Vocational staff are uneasy, too. They are concerned about their lack of expertise and their ability to help learners achieve. They fear the impact on their departmental results and the subsequent threat to their own careers. As many have noted, vocational maths in context is one thing but the exam has no single vocational focus, so it is the application of maths that is key. These staff do not have the expertise or confidence to enable students to absorb and then apply mathematical constructs in a variety of situations, much less an exam paper. They need training and support to take on these new challenges, if this is how it is to be.

FE colleges with poor finances are now in a bind. They must save money to survive but must also deliver learning, achievement and success to a high standard. The impact on their futures is clear: colleges without well-qualified maths and English teaching staff and good results are unlikely to thrive, leading to funding gaps, a lack of learners and reduced staff numbers. Poor and potentially dangerous choices are thus being made in the name of financial efficiency. FE colleges are once again prioritising their own survival over the needs of learners.

The requirement for students to achieve a level 2 qualification is the driver. But I fear that this journey, with a blindfolded man at the wheel, will lead only to a horrendous crash. We will again clash with or be run over by the funding juggernaut. Chased by a Wolf, we are behaving as sheep, blindly following the funding formula into a future skills void of our own making.

Published in TES

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