EEF funds major trials to help learners ‘make the grade’ in resits

Trial of text message ‘nudges’ is among projects aiming to improve attainment in English and maths GCSEs
24th March 2017, 12:00am
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EEF funds major trials to help learners ‘make the grade’ in resits

More than 13,000 students across the country will take part in large-scale research to trial new approaches to supporting those who have failed to achieve a good GCSE pass in English and maths.

In 2016, the number of students aged 17 and over taking English and maths increased by a third to top 300,000 for the first time. But A*-C pass rates for these learners plummeted to less than 30 per cent in both subjects.

Today, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) will announce the first post-16 projects it will back, using its £5 million fund for supporting students who do not get a C in English or maths the first time around.

The EEF was set up in 2011 by the Sutton Trust social mobility charity with a £125 million founding grant from the Department for Education. The grant-making foundation is dedicated to breaking the negative link between family income and educational achievement. Since its launch, the EEF has awarded £80 million to 133 projects working with more than 850,000 pupils in more than 8,300 schools across England. But the trials announced today mark the organisation’s first move into the FE sector.

The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) will receive about £700,000 to allow it to extend its work on embedding contextualisation in English and maths GCSE teaching to 1,500 learners across 100 settings.

Meanwhile, the University of Nottingham’s Maths for Life project will receive £640,000 to expand its approach to teaching challenging maths concepts through student-centred classes focusing on problem-solving and discussion. Some 8,000 post-16 students from 100 settings will take part in the trial.

In addition, the Behavioural Insights Team - the “nudge unit” established within the Cabinet Office but now operating as a limited company - will receive £240,000 to test whether encouraging text messages sent to students and designated “study supporters” (a peer, parent or mentor) could improve attendance and attainment. The grant will fund work with 3,750 students in 30 settings.

The EEF is now looking for colleges and providers that would be interested in taking part in the research projects.

Chief executive Sir Kevan Collins said: “In 2016, only one in four teenagers made the grade in English and maths after sitting their GCSE exam a second time. It’s clear that simply keeping those teenagers in compulsory education for another year - putting extra pressure on an already squeezed sector - is just not enough.

“We have to get more and better evidence of which teaching and learning strategies work for 16- to 18-year-olds if we want to give all young people the skills they need to thrive in life. The three trials we’ve announced today will involve over 200 settings across England. They’ll give us crucial insight into how effective different approaches are, from texting students to teaching maths in real-life contexts.”

Embedding contextualisation

One way of trying to improve learners’ motivation and understanding is to use real-life contexts to make the content more relevant, particularly involving the vocational subjects they have chosen to study.

In 2014, the AELP and Mathematics in Education and Industry received DfE funding to develop resources to help teachers to better contextualise English and maths teaching. The EEF grant will allow these resources to be developed and extended, and provide training and support so that providers can embed enhanced contextualisation approaches throughout their work.

The AELP’s business development director, Mike Cox, said: “We will work with a small number of providers to support them to embrace a contextual delivery mindset that includes not only maths and English practitioners but the whole provider to reinforce maths and English learning and show how it is applied during real working situations.”

Following the pilot year, it will be extended to 100 settings.

Maths for Life

The Maths for Life approach teaches key concepts through problems designed to re-engage learners and cement their understanding. Problems are designed to help teachers’ diagnostic and formative-assessment practices, and improve students’ understanding and reasoning. In a development year, the University of Nottingham will work with 15 maths teachers to update the approach and materials. In the second year, the teachers will deliver collaborative professional development. Some 100 providers will be recruited and randomised for the second year.

Geoff Wake, professor of maths education at the university, said his team was “looking forward to developing the approaches further” to create a programme to support GCSE maths resit classes and trialling this in the second year of the project.

“It’s a great privilege to be given the opportunity to work in this very important setting to help students develop their understanding of mathematics,” he added.

Texting support

This approach aims to tackle low attendance in GCSE resit classes. The trial will test whether text messages sent to students and designated “study supporters” (a peer, parent or mentor identified by a student) can improve attendance and attainment.

The intervention consists of sending around 35 text messages during the year about course content, academic resources, deadlines, extra tutorial sessions and exam dates. Previous college trials by the Behavioural Insights Team reported an increase in attendance of 10 per cent.

Bibi Groot, principal investigator for the project, said: “We will be testing ways to spark conversations between learners and someone they nominate who cares about their learning. Our earlier research shows that this light-touch intervention can increase attendance at college and that the students enjoy it, too. We’re excited to learn what happens when we take it to scale.”

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