Why a £150m ‘sticking plaster’ is no remedy for maths problems

15th June 2018 at 00:00
With England falling behind internationally, the government has announced a series of initiatives to boost post-16 provision. But colleges are warning that forcing them to ‘chase pots of money’ won’t address chronic underfunding, finds George Ryan

Post-GCSE maths has become a serious problem. England remains unusual among advanced economies in that the study of maths is not continued by most students beyond the age of 16.

Almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of students with a standard pass at GCSE choose not to carry on studying the subject. Among those who don’t achieve the benchmark of a grade C or 4 the first time around, the situation is even more worrying: last summer, fewer than a quarter (24 per cent) of 17-plus students who took the legacy GCSE achieved a C.

Little wonder, then, that England lags behind its international competitors. The most recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report found “weak numeracy” levels among 16- to 19-year-old students in England, compared with almost every other nation.

The issue is so critical that the government commissioned a review of this area by leading statistician Sir Adrian Smith, finally published last summer. And it again emerged as a key theme in the industrial strategy released in November, which highlighted the “consistent undersupply” of maths skills required for the labour market.

A week before this strategy was published, chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Budget outlined four programmes specifically designed to boost post-16 maths, allocating some £150 million over the next five years.


But as more details emerge, concerns are growing that the initiatives – and the promised funding for them – will be too difficult to access, and risk having little impact.

A more flexible approach to the eligibility criteria for these programmes would allow more colleges to get involved, says Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA).

Matthew Grant, principal of Priestley College in Warrington, adds to the criticism, saying: “If we are seriously signed up to the goals [of improving post-16 maths], it shouldn’t be about chasing pots of money, or dependent on where you live.

“A consequence of the squeeze on post-16 funding has been the narrowing of the curriculum offer in too many providers. A sticking plaster, or series of sticking plasters, will not compensate for a lack of core funding.”

One of the programmes that colleges have raised concerns about is the basic maths premium pilot, which aims to improve GCSE maths resit outcomes. The funding is limited to areas that the Department for Education deems to have low attainment.

By these criteria, the Manchester College is not eligible to take part – a frustration for principal Lisa O’Loughlin. “As one of the largest colleges in the UK, we are very disappointed to not qualify for the pilot,” she says. “We have over 5,500 maths and English enrolments per year within our 16-18 cohort, and this represents the significant majority of retakes in the city.”

Jumping through hoops

Catherine Sezen, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, sympathises with colleges that do not meet the eligibility criteria, saying: “We have got a sector that is underfunded and it is almost like seeing there is this pot of money but we have got to go through a lot of hoops [to access it].”

A DfE spokesperson says that more than 45,000 students per year stand to benefit from the basic maths premium pilot, adding: “The location of the main campus of the institution was considered rather than where students are living, to maximise the benefit and impact of the additional funding for this limited pilot.”

The requirements for setting up a Centre for Excellence have also proved prohibitive. To be eligible, institutions must have a minimum of 250 students with prior attainment below grade 4 in GCSE maths. Mike Hill, principal of Carmel College, a sixth-form college in Merseyside, says this threshold is a barrier. He is now looking at putting together a consortium with other providers to open a centre.

“It feels like lots of well-intentioned policies are being pushed out very quickly,” Hill adds. “Whether they will have an impact is yet to be seen. If the funding was given out across the board that would be more beneficial. The biggest challenge is the staffing cost – the money that is available is not going to have a massive impact in terms of capacity.”

London’s Lewisham Southwark College is also interested in establishing a Centre for Excellence. Head of maths Lyn Craswell hopes the move would “reignite interest in maths with some fresh teaching approaches, smaller classes, and extensive in-class support”.

The announcement of the maths premium for sixth-formers in the Autumn Budget was blasted as “disingenuous” by the SFCA, after school standards minister Nick Gibb revealed that the £83 million “initially” budgeted for the policy was actually spread over a five-year period, with just £4.6 million set aside for 2019-20.

Deputy chief executive James Kewin said that the “eye-catching” headline figure would “do little to address the fundamental underfunding of 16-19 education”.

In March, leading universities were invited to open a new wave of 16-19 maths free schools, based on super-selective institutions in Russia. The model was launched under former education secretary Michael Gove in 2012. Two of the specialist institutions have opened to date: King’s College London Mathematics School and Exeter Mathematics School. The latter also benefits from a close relationship with Exeter College, according to its headteacher, Kerry Burnham.

“For our model, [the university and the college] are very much equal partners,” she adds. “The college provides depth with an extracurricular offer, and has a wealth of experience in post-16 education.

“There are specialist schools and colleges for music, arts and agriculture, so why not other subjects, too? There is something wonderful about bringing people together with a common interest or goal.”

But while setting up specialised schools with elite universities may appear far removed from the work of many FE colleges, Sezen remains optimistic that, with some additional flexibility, the maths projects in development could have a positive impact. And she argues that Centres for Excellence could have the greatest reach, through “providing resource to help facilitate research, networking and dissemination of good practice”.

“Of course,” she adds, “additional funding for all students now would have the greatest impact of all.”


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