Major investment needed to tackle maths 'failures'

GCSE grade 4 in maths is 'not an appropriate or realistic goal for all students', says University of Nottingham report

New report highlights the variations between maths teaching in FE and calls for investment

Major investment in leadership training and teacher professional development is required to make more significant and sustained improvements in maths provision in colleges, a new report has found.

The second interim report by the Mathematics in Further Education Colleges Project (MiFEC), which is led by academics from the University of Nottingham’s School of Education and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, concludes that policymakers and FE leaders need to better understand variations between colleges in management and operational strategies, curriculum and teaching approaches, as well as in the attitudes and aspirations of students, if more young people are to make progress in maths. 


Background: GCSE resits: English and maths pass rate drops

More: The alternative maths GCSE curriculum: dead on arrival?

News: New maths GCSE curriculum for post-16 students unveiled


Disengaged learners

The researchers also say there should also be investment into a better understanding of, and training for, the distinctive challenges of teaching students with low GCSE grades and disengaged post-16 learners in FE colleges for whom mathematics is now compulsory.

The majority of mathematics teaching in FE colleges involves students who are retaking mathematics on a GCSE or functional skills course, they point out, and mathematics teachers in the study identify a need for “context-specific variation in teaching, using different adaptive pedagogies and resources to meet students’ needs.

“Teaching mathematics in FE primarily involves working with low-attaining students who consider themselves ‘failures’ and teachers in the study have concerns that the timescale for demonstrating measurable improvement on retake courses is often unrealistic,” the report concludes, stressing the need for sector-specific training to prepare mathematics teachers for the FE context.

The authors say there is "wide agreement across the case study colleges that the condition of funding [forcing students to resit if they have not obtained at least a grade 4 in GCSE maths] is flawed" and needs to be reviewed, mainly due to concerns that GCSE mathematics grade 4 is not an appropriate or realistic goal for all students. A common view is that more appropriate qualifications and goals for all students are needed in future policy, based on a better understanding of the student cohort.”

Contextual differences

The authors of the report, entitled the Mathematics in England’s Further Education Colleges: an analysis of policy enactment and practice, found significant variation in the range of vocational and academic qualifications offered by the colleges in the survey – affecting the size and profile of mathematics provision, as well as teaching. The researchers also found contextual differences between colleges, meaning that the challenges for providers are not the same, although this is not taken into account in comparisons of college performance.

The report stresses that cross-college managers of mathematics are “key players who carry out distinctive and complex roles in these shared responsibility systems”. It goes on to say: “There is little evidence of any specific training for these positions but there are strong indications of the need for better understanding of these roles and a bespoke training scheme.”

It also finds variations in the structural arrangements around management and staffing colleges have chosen, and in the way maths is timetabled. “The colleges in the study work hard to timetable mathematics in ways that will encourage good attendance, often fitting the rest of the study programme around mathematics and English. The teaching time allocated varies between colleges but the practice of allocating less time to functional skills than GCSE means that the least able students are often disadvantaged.”

According to the researchers, it is crucial to develop teachers’ expertise in using and adapting teaching methods that are responsive to FE students’ needs, allowing them to build confidence and resilience.

The report also recommends investment in the establishment of a national programme of training and professional development for the cross-college managers of mathematics who, the researchers say, are critical to driving system improvements.

Andrew Noyes, professor of education at the University of Nottingham, who leads the MiFEC project, said: “The importance of mathematical skills to individuals, to the economy and to society is well documented and widely agreed upon. Increasing the skills base in England is therefore a national priority as evidenced in the industrial strategy.

"Our comprehensive analysis shows that these improvements cannot be achieved simply or cheaply. If the government is committed to long-term sustained improvement in mathematics skills for all students up to the age of 18, it must invest substantial resources into doing so, and avoid the regular changes in policy that can hinder progress.”

Cheryl Lloyd, education programme head at the Nuffield Foundation said: “Post-16 maths is a key priority for the Nuffield Foundation as we want all young people to have the skills needed to thrive in our society. This report provides important insights into the complexities of maths education in the post-16 system, highlighting the value of investing in the professional development of teachers in further education colleges to improve the outcomes of post-16 maths students.

"We look forward to the publication of the research team’s final report later this year which will also draw on analysis of student progression and the views of young people.”

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Julia Belgutay
Julia Belgutay
Julia Belgutay is deputy FE news editor for Tes
Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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