Picking up the pieces of school-leavers’ maths GCSE failings is a heavy burden for the FE and skills sector. It is also one in which Alex Falconer thinks improvements are needed.

This year more than 550,00 year 11 pupils in England will complete their GCSEs. Most (86 per cent) will go on to training or FE of one sort or another.

Recent figures show that of these, roughly a third will stay on to their school sixth form, one in ten (68,000) will study at a sixth form college and another third (185,000) will transfer to general FE colleges for (mostly) vocational education.

Around 5 per cent will take apprenticeships, some will get employment and the rest will join the ranks of those not in employment, education or training (NEETs).

For those aspiring to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers, a GCSE C grade or better in maths is essential.

The national A* to C grade GCSE maths pass rate in schools is currently around 70 per cent.

However, the fact that 172,000 pupils fail to achieve a grade C by the age of 16 has been a concern for some time.

In fact this year, around 64,000 school leavers will achieve a D grade in GCSE maths.

Of those who repeat GCSE maths in post-16 settings — school sixth forms, sixth form colleges, FE colleges and work-based learning providers — fewer than half achieve a C grade or better each year.

Certainly, the recent emphasis on teaching maths for understanding in our schools has had a positive effect on pupils and their attainment levels.

However, there are still too few pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds achieving five A* to C grade GCSE passes.

These young people are far more likely to miss out on well-paid jobs because they have not achieved their potential at GCSE.

This is precisely why, following the recommendations in the Wolf report, there is now a clear expectation from government that all post-16 learners will continue to study maths and will either prepare for, or take GCSE maths.

This is a huge challenge for all FE and skills providers. Ensuring all learners get their entitlement to maths provision that leads to a level two qualification or GCSE is currently taxing their minds and resources.

It is not an easy task as there is a shortage of teachers qualified to teach GCSE maths.

Where possible, providers have been actively recruiting more maths teachers and making sure that relevant training for others is in place.

However, it does look as though demand will continue to outstrip supply. To provide an initial solution, the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics (NCETM) has developed a Mathematics Enhancement Programme to provide continued professional development.

But spare a thought for those who did not achieve a D grade or better — all 108,000 of them.

Many of these young people will train for apprenticeships, NVQs, BTecs and the like. Most of these learners will take functional skills courses in foundation English and/or maths.

From Ofsted’s perspective, teaching and learning in functional skills maths require considerable improvement. But where it is most successful, lessons are firmly rooted in vocational contexts.

That is to say, the maths operations they learn are taught within relevant, subject-based contexts.

It is therefore that maths is seen as a key underpinning subject, integral to all the 16 to 19 study programmes and not as an ‘add-on’ extra. A more numerate and mathematically confident workforce will make a positive contribution to the economy.

In addition, FE — always the leader in the ‘second chance’ market — can change the employment prospects of thousands of learners, and we might even see fewer people leaving saying, ‘I’m useless at maths, me’.

Alex Falconer HMI, Ofsted national lead on post-16 STEM, with additional research by Norma Honey, National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics


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