It’s more than a week since Rishi Sunak’s pledge for all young people to study “some form of maths” to the age of 18. With detail distinctly absent, we know that the prime minister wants the planning done within this parliament and implementation in the next. This timing is an opportunity for consultation, for policy makers to consider the complexity of the issue, and to deliver a well-informed, fit-for-purpose national strategy.
There are several big issues. Aside from the fact that the policy would require significant additional funding, many commentators have highlighted the shortage of maths teachers and the struggle many colleges face to staff their existing maths classes. Currently, around 43 per cent of our FE learners study maths; colleges would need double that number if the policy is to be qualifications-based. What calibre of teachers are needed, where will these teachers come from, and what training do they need? The rapid decline of maths specialist teachers in FE will need to be reversed. We will also need further investment in high-quality CPD programmes to support effective teaching.
And then there’s the curriculum. Are we looking at stand-alone maths or functionality? Is it vocationally-specific maths, or transferable skills?
Fundamental to this is meeting the diverse needs of learners, only a small minority of whom will have actively chosen to study maths. Around 40 per cent of young people fail to achieve a GCSE grade 4 in maths at 16, with vast majority re-sitting in FE colleges. Fewer than 20 per cent of these achieve a grade 4 each year, and sadly a significant proportion actually decrease in grade.
Then there’s the 60 per cent who do achieve a GCSE grade 4. Some progress to A level and others study level 3 core maths qualifications, but uptake is very low. Will progression for them simply mean to a higher level, or focus on greater application of skills? Wherever the policy leads, a greater variety of options for learners will be essential.
The Centres for Excellence in Maths (CfEM) programme was tasked by the department for education with delivering sustained improvements in level 2 maths attainment in colleges. Working with 21 colleges and their networks, covering 95 per cent of colleges nationally, this five-year project provides a clear steer on how any future policy might enable engagement and attainment in FE maths. The project focused particularly on an adapted form of mastery teaching, alongside building networks of maths professionals across colleges, which proved invaluable.
One of the principles key to this programme’s success has been ‘belief in success’, developing a culture in which everyone believes everyone can succeed. To achieve this, particular effort was made to upskill teachers to use coaching, mindset and resilience strategies with their learners. This has implications for initial teacher training and CPD and demonstrates the need to value and foster the soft skills of maths teachers as a priority.
In addition, many CfEM colleges are reporting success with teaching for mastery approaches that emphasise conceptual understanding, reasoning and problem solving. Those with low grades appear to benefit disproportionately from the use of visual models and representations to support their understanding. The colleges are currently developing a set of mastery lessons for GCSE re-sit and functional skills teachers which will be available to the sector by the end of March. Such approaches need to be embedded more fully in FE maths practices at all levels.
Importantly, delivering the prime minister’s ambition will depend upon full engagement with a frustrated profession. In a recent ETF survey of 4,252 staff, 82 per cent of respondents told us the most rewarding aspect of their job is inspiring students, changing lives and making a difference. But the survey also revealed widespread challenges with lack of funding (31 per cent), recruitment (19 per cent) and the changing sector landscape (18 per cent).
Only a policy that recognises this, has practical application and is grounded in evidence will truly meet the needs of the sector and its learners.