'As a student I hated maths. As a teacher, I love it'

Adult learners resitting their maths GCSE have chosen to be there – and that makes all the difference, says this teacher

Rebecca Atherfold

Teaching adult learners makes a real difference - but it does not mean there are no challenges

Picture a post-16 GCSE maths class. If you are imagining a 16-19 group in a sixth form or college, then you aren’t wrong. Those students do make up the largest proportion of the statistics. But also included are adult learners – students who are over 19, studying at an adult education college and not mandated to be there as part of the GCSE resit policy.

The reasons for adults taking GCSE maths are manifold, but it is generally because there has come a time in the learner’s life when they have realised that they need that elusive grade 4 to change, or move forward in, their career. They might have children and really want to know how to support them to be successful.

While these adult learners will be sitting the same exams as every other GCSE student, post-16 or not, they are often at a very different stage of their academic journey. They will have other GCSEs, possibly A levels, vocational qualifications and degrees. They might have successful careers.


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In short, my students have actively chosen to study maths. They are motivated because they truly want and understand the need for the qualification. They tend to know how to study successfully and behave in a professional manner. Isn’t this a class with everything that makes teaching hard and tiring removed?

Well, yes it is. I have worked in primary, secondary and special education and my work-life balance has never been so good. I started working in adult education after having my children and can’t believe my luck that I have a full-time job, doing what I love and that I’m not a stranger to my family. But like with any teaching job, there are challenges. And however motivated my students are, exam success isn’t guaranteed.

The biggest challenge is time. Our GCSE courses are three hours a week and my class attend from 6.30-9.30pm. We start in the middle of September for the June exams. This might be enough if it was simply a refresher, but my youngest students this year are 24-years-old and my oldest are in their mid-fifties. Even if they had left school only marks away from a grade 4, it was years ago and under the old GCSE specification. Or O level/CSE.

In addition, I am amazed at how frequently I hear that students were in the bottom set at school, behaviour was poor and theirs was the class that always was given the supply teacher. Not students making excuses, just genuinely reflecting on why they are where they are now. So while every teacher is used to hearing students swear they have never come across a concept before, when I hear it now I believe it is very likely to be true.

Of course, there has never been a better time to teach yourself maths and catch up independently. Websites like Corbett Maths and BBC Bitesize are truly amazing – and free! My college subscribes to MathsWatch, which is also great. We offer drop-in workshops during the week and at weekends. Class sizes are small and I have the time to respond to students if they contact me about something that they don’t understand. I want my students to understand there isn’t any shame in not knowing something, but the responsibility might be on you, with my support, to find out.

Treating adults like adults

Like in all settings, time in class is affected by lateness and distractions. This is harder to address with adult learners. When I taught in school it was the expectation that all students would be in class for the start of the lesson and phones would not be seen or heard.

But I can’t and won’t talk to an adult who has arrived late, straight from a 12-hour shift, like they are a dawdling teenager trying to put off the inevitable maths class. I can’t expect a parent who has left their children with a new babysitter to switch off their phone. Nor would I want to, even though we all know that once your phone is out the alerts popping up can be a massive distraction.

I have to work with the situation. My strategies are to make every minute of the lesson count. I set retrieval practice questions at the beginning of every lesson. When students come in they have something to do straight away and they aren’t waiting for anybody. I work hard to show my students how much I respect them and appreciate the effort they are making. I understand you may be late. Of course, I don’t mind your phone being where you can see it. You are here at 9.30 at night studying maths when you have been at work all day and have a family and life to attend to. That is incredible. What I receive back is respect – students who come in late, come in quietly. Phone use is at a minimum. It’s not perfect, but it's OK.

I’m honest and tell my students that I wasn’t particularly fussed one way or the other about maths when I was at school. I certainly didn’t love it or consider myself very good at it. I also didn’t share the fear of it that I see a lot in adult learners. But I have been on a maths journey of my own. I wasn’t great at it and it didn’t interest me. Now I’m borderline obsessed.

Maths is a beautiful subject that helps us make sense of the world (and not just when calculating fencing and paving stone requirements). I can see my students’ attitudes to maths and themselves as mathematicians change. And at the same time, they get closer to the future they want for themselves. This is my job. As I said, I can’t believe my luck.

Rebecca Atherfold is a full-time maths tutor teaching functional skills and GCSE at the Learning and Enterprise College Bexley

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