How to solve a problem like GCSE maths

Research has highlighted what teachers already know about GCSE maths in colleges, says Jonny Kay – there is an urgent need for additional training, funding and support

Jonny Kay

GCSE maths: how to improve it in colleges | Tes

With much debate around what exams will look like in 2021 (if they happen at all), an unlikely benefit of the emphasis on GCSEs during the pandemic has been the focus on post-16 resits and the challenges that students and practitioners face. 

As complaints were raised about the difficulty of centre-assessed grading (CAG) in larger schools, many discovered for the first time that further education colleges routinely entered 5000+ students at GCSE. As issues were raised about the mental health impact the CAG may have on Year 11 students, it was finally more widely recognised that some FE students had previously sat the exam two, three and four times (or more).

These challenges, and some potential solutions, were brought into sharp focus recently with the release of a report by the University of Nottingham and the Nuffield Foundation, Mathematics in Further Education Colleges, which summaries and outlines research completed over a three year period, was compiled using interviews with over 200 staff and nearly 400 students, and highlighted a range of issues around FE maths provision.

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Additional training, funding and support

Its conclusions are familiar. Specifically, the report cites that “teacher supply, initial training and career-long CPD need to be improved” and that there is also “a clear need for leadership development”.

Clearly, this is an important piece of research, and involves some of the most distinguished academics in the country, but does it reveal anything that those working within further education did not already know? 

With the national GCSE grade 4+ average barely reaching 20 per cent in previous years, practitioners and leaders in further education have been signalling the need for additional training, funding and support for some time.

This is not to say that there have not been some developments to arrest the slide in national achievement. Principally, the creation of the Centres for Excellence in Maths initiative has been a notable step in the right direction. A fantastic start, but this clearly required more funding (the number of centres expanded, while funding remained the same) and would undoubtedly have benefited from long-term government commitment, as opposed to the short-term funding it was initially promised (one to two years).

The quality of teaching 

One of the positives to come from the report was the suggestion that the expertise to solve these challenges already exists within the sector. As a result, facilitating collaboration must become a key priority for college leaders and the DfE. This is already occurring to some degree (the CfEM, the mE+ Conference in North East, various regional maths hubs etc), but could be significantly improved through facilitating collaboration between maths leaders.

Identifying outstanding national leaders in maths, and using their expertise to support maths leaders around the country would go some way to offering the high-quality, relevant maths CPD the report suggests is needed. This could also allow the creation of a national maths network for leaders and practitioners and would represent long term support for all involved.

Though the government has previously attempted to remedy shortages in key subjects through bursary and other incentives, the evidence suggests this doesn’t always work, and so training and retaining existing staff is vital. Through formalising leadership and practitioner networks, a solid foundation of local, regional and national support could make maths teaching a much more attractive and supported career. It could also help to develop outstanding practice through action research projects and other practitioner-led initiatives. 

The report also states that 80 per cent of the interviewed teachers consider the current resit/GCSE maths policy too prescriptive and even unsuited to student learning. Reforming this is arguably the first priority for many in further education, but it is surely more important to get teaching and leadership right in existing qualifications, before creating additional challenges with new ones. This would also take time to develop and implement, whereas the quality of teaching and CPD is a much more immediate priority.

The issues with GCSE English

While this discussion rages, what of GCSE and FS English? Though results in English have traditionally been higher than maths, they are still well below an acceptable level. There is no Centre for Excellence in English or recognised national initiative – does this then suggest we are happy with 70 per cent of students failing to achieve their target GCSE grade? With the majority of leaders of maths also leading English, training and leadership support for both English and maths is vital. 

Regardless of future initiatives, what is clear to all concerned is that additional support is needed immediately to help students to achieve their potential, and this can only be achieved with significant investment and resources.

Jonny Kay is the head of teaching and learning at a college in the North East. He tweets at @jonnykayteacher

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