Investing in maths and English

Sam Parrett explains how her college met the challenge of a 300 per cent increase in the number of English and maths GCSE students by investing £500,000 in improving provision. She advises other providers to adopt a similar a “whole college” approach.

The recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, Building Skills for All: A Review of England, painted a worrying picture regarding maths and English skills of young people in this country.

The majority of
the spending has been on resourcing and facilities — including a dramatic expansion of staff in our maths and English department to almost 20 per cent of the college’s total staff

Around a third of 16-19 year olds were deemed to have low levels of literacy and numeracy.

There is no doubt that lack of core skills leads to unemployment. Effective teaching and learning of English and maths is fundamental to both our education system and UK industry as a whole.

Responding to this issue in 2014, the Government made it a condition of funding that all full time 16-18 year olds who do not hold a maths and/or English GCSE grade A*-C must enrol on these courses.

Then, in 2015, a further condition was introduced that all students with a grade D in maths and/or English must enrol “on a GCSE course, rather than an equivalent ‘stepping stone” qualification.

This has had, and continues to have, a major impact on FE.

At Bromley College, the number of 16-18 year old students studying maths GCSE has risen from 115 in 2013/14 to 636 in 2015/16.

For English GCSE, students numbers have rocketed by 525 (from 179 to 704) in this two-year period.

The number of students doing both English and maths GCSE has increased by over 300 per cent, with 1,340 currently studying for both qualifications.

These huge figures have seen no matching increase in study programme funding.

We opted to tackle this challenge issue head-on with a £500,000 investment to ensure our maths and English provision is of the highest possible quality.

The majority of the spending has been on resourcing and facilities — including a dramatic, threefold expansion of staff in our maths and English department to around 120, almost 20 per cent of the college’s total staff.

We have changed the management structure, employing separate maths and English heads rather than just one overseeing both areas.

We have also put expert senior managers in place to develop staff, implement training and encourage very best teaching practice.

Our new maths and English Hub provides a centre for students of all ages and abilities to develop their knowledge.

Lecturers refer learners here as well as drop-in sessions being available for anyone wanting or needing extra support.

Ensuring the Hub is fully staffed all the time has not been easy. To help address this particular challenge, I have even managed to persuade my stay-at-home husband (with his three maths A-levels) to come and pitch in.

We are also developing our volunteer service — encouraging members of the community to come and assist with additional learning support can take the pressure off staff while giving learners encouragement.

Embedding maths and English into a vocational curriculum and making learning relevant is widely referred to in FE.

We have turned this approach on its head and embed the vocational elements into the maths and English scheme of work, rather than the other way around.

I would urge FE colleges to take a “whole college” approach to maths and English provision rather than simply having a “department”.

Running activities such as cross-college maths and English weeks not only increases student engagement, but really reinforces the message as to the importance of these skills.

Students’ needs vary hugely — what works for one person will not work for another. The expansion of our teaching resources is enabling us to offer each and every student a personalised learning experience.

There is no doubt that FE colleges have a tough jobs. We are trying to turn around many years of under-achievement in maths and English, often in just eight or nine months.

However, the year-on-year improvements in both GCSE maths/English and functional skills that we are seeing at Bromley College provide early evidence that our head-on approach is working.

Good core skills are key to career progression and success, which means that high-quality maths and English provision simply must be a priority in FE.


Sam Parrett OBE is principal of Bromley College

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