Monday, 17 November 2014

36 Weeks Later

The introduction of Study Programmes with the formal instruction to include compulsory Maths and English is an ill-thought and rushed policy. Whilst its aim is true, it is a typical 'reaction' policy with little understanding of the issues and problems behind the headlines.

It is also true, as the Secret College Tutor recently wrote in the Guardian that

England lies 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 nations. And recent GCSE results in the further education sector do little to reassure concerns, with a mere 6.5% of learners achieving a grade C or above in English and 7% in maths.

That is a truly shocking and unacceptable level of achievement. But is it FE's fault? NO. This is a situation which has been allowed to fester and suppurate beneath the distracting push-pull sticking plaster of hype and spin.

In FE, we want all our students to achieve highest grades in their subjects, and that includes Maths and English, but to push through the edict that 'it MUST be achieved' without proper thought, preparation and planning condemns the students and staff to years of misery.

For what? Headlines and more FE bashing?

As Geoff Petty writes in the article comments "... Of hundreds of factors that influence achievement, students retaking a year they have failed (called 'retention' by researchers) is one of the very worst educational strategies known. Hattie calls it a 'disaster'. Students retaking a subject, or subjects, must be very similar to retaking a year. If a strategy has failed why repeat it exactly expecting a different outcome? So much for an evidence based approach. Geoff Petty author 'Evidence Based Teaching'."

It is almost too late to address the problem when students arrive in FE. This should be tackled much earlier in schools, and at age 14 and again at 16, with clear and effective Careers advice, together with an overhaul of the Qualifications offered by the Awarding Bodies and an overhaul of policies that constrain FE from delivering first class education to the students in a way that really meets their needs.

We need an overhaul of Funding and Policy Constraints in FE

The Programme of study is too blunt an instrument to deliver improvements in Maths. Funding cuts have forced FE to utilise every spare moment of a lecturers timetable. Inevitably, this has caused lecturers to teach subjects for which they are not qualified.

It has also reduced the amount of and quality of CPD and opportunities to up-skill and retain in new areas.

Identified issues with the Programme of Study
  • FE teachers work long and hard to try and help the students learn maths
  • Many of the people teaching English and maths in FE don’t have a grade C themselves and haven’t been properly trained to deliver these subjects
  • Funding cuts are causing Colleges to fill up timetables with other subjects to maximise efficiency

We need a complete overhaul of Qualifications

We need to work with the Awarding Bodies and ensure that the vocational qualifications have sufficient maths and English embedded into the Learning Criteria and Objectives, so it becomes an inherent part of the subject, not a bolt on. The Secret College Tutor writes:

Often they only come to the college to learn their trade and have little interest in studying a subject that has caused them so much stress and anxiety. To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, 50% of people join a college without a grade C in English and maths. That is a lot of people who the state education system has let down or been unable to help.

That maybe true, but it doesn't mean they can't learn some form of Maths and more importantly, learn how to apply it to their selected trade. Without maths they would be unemployable:

Bricklayers use maths to measure and weigh, they use angles, temperature, mass, estimation and a raft of other mathematical topics, up to any including Trigonometry and Pythagoras. They can use tessellations for laying patio slabs.

Child Care students use maths in the assessment of the health of a child, (measurement), gm or ml of medicine per Kg of baby weight, same with Health and Social Care students.

Animal Care students need to understand stocking density of livestock per acre or hectare, medicine or additives for animal feed.

Equine students can use Pi to work out lunging circles for horses in dressage, calculating heights of jumps, strides between jumps

Mechanics and Engineering students are overloaded with opportunities to use maths, so are IT students, starting with basic Binary Code of 010101 and conversions to Hexadecimal, screen sizes for programming, disc and memory size - thousands of opportunities.

Vocational teachers teach these skills without naming it 'maths', but when the students take 'maths', they take qualifications that are generic, without any subject association.

Why so many? Is finding and funding the right qualification for your learners a bit like the old sleight of hand game of 'Find the Lady'? GCSE is a pointless qualification and not fit for purpose, nor will the new changes of grading and content be any more suitable.

We need to review Maths Qualifications and overhaul them, in a way that works for FE and the learners, not the Government or the Awarding Bodies. We understand all too well the importance of Maths and how limiting it is not to have that important knowledge, but does it have to be a separate qualification?

We need one qualification that measures Maths achievement. It could be a form of Applied Maths at Entry 1, 2 and 3 and at L1 and L2 that allows students to take a maths qualification that is tailored to their subject. If we already have 297 variants, surely they could be stripped back to cover the main sector areas of FE and one additional paper that is generic for those who do not yet have a speciality or wish to demonstrate proficiency in maths for University, without too much difficulty?

We need to build maths and English into the Vocational Qualifications and make sure that they are mandatory Learning Objectives.

Students need exceptional Careers Advice

We need a review of how Maths is taught in Schools, when choices are made by learners and staff as to which maths course they should take.

To achieve this, we need much better Careers Advice for students at 14, their choices then should dictate which maths courses they take, not force them all through the GCSE sieve and hope that some tumble out of the holes with a qualification.

Students could take part of the vocational qualification in schools either a L1 or L2 and then complete it in FE, taking their L2 and/or L3 in FE. Academic students could continue with GCSE Maths and other GCSE's for preparation for A level.

If they changed their mind at 16, then they would still have the qualifications needed on entry to FE to take a Progression Course to move them forwards or move directly onto a Vocational L3 or an Academic A level. Both are equally valuable and equally useful and one should not be pushed at the expense of the other.

Lack of Value

Historically, Maths was of no interest at all to the Government. Students were not enrolled onto GCSE courses if they were unable to pass it. It was recognised that it was a waste of everyones time and could only serve to cause misery to the student. Those who were close, e.g. a good D grade were encouraged to retake and gain a C, others were put on Basic or Key Skills, neither of which were of much use. Too many with a D grade ignored the GCSE and used a proxy to bypass the vocational part of Key Skills and take a short on-line test and emerge with a L2 qualification.

That didn't prepare them either. Too many students were leaving colleges with insufficient knowledge of the application of Maths and English. Key Skills turned into Functional Skills and again, many students were enrolled onto those courses in an attempt to get them a L2 qualification. But L2 Functional Skills isn't really the same as a Grade C GCSE, no matter how many times the Government insist it is. 


The Programme of Study will not achieve miraculous improvements in thirty six weeks. Whole cohorts of learners will not magically raise themselves up from their E, F and G grades to emerge with a C or B, simply because they have been told to attend Maths. 

Change takes time; good teaching, well qualified and experienced staff and supportive, committed Senior Management combined with a government which recognises at last, that 'quick fixes' cause more damage than they purport to fix.

Moving Forwards

GCSE and Functional Skills L2 and the other 295 qualifications demonstrate the lack of consistency and care that has been paid to Maths and English qualifications. If it were a dartboard, even I could hit a qualification, blindfolded, with both arms tied behind my back. The problem is, we never seem to hit the right qualification at the right time. We just lurch from change to change without ever stopping to solve the underlying issues.

It is time to change this, but change will not happen by shifting the blame to a sector that has already shouldered more than its fair share of the blame over recent years. Change can only come when the Government, the Policy Makers, the Awarding Bodies, the Schools, the Career Advice Service, FE and Industry all sit down together and listen to each other.

Students deserve a first class maths qualification and education, whilst FE continues to do its best, we are like the crew of a boat, frantically rowing and baling at the same time.

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