A parent of one of my FE students once demanded to know why we were ‘forcing’ his son to continue studying maths and English at college alongside his vocational subject.
What I said to him then very much remains the case today: every young person needs these skills to reach their full potential. Whatever their ambition or aspiration, developing confidence in these core subjects will make a monumental difference students’ ability to achieve career and life goals.
FE colleges have a huge responsibility here, often needing to completely re-engage and re-motivate young people who feel very negatively towards continued study of maths and English. Many feel like they’ve spent years failing at school, have low confidence and little interest in lessons.
There is also the issue of timing. For students joining us in September, it’s extremely difficult to retake exams with us at the first possible opportunity in November. This is due to the complexity and the cost of re-registering them, as well as not having the time to properly assess learning needs or get the information we need from their old schools.
Some young learners will be able to return to their school to resit in November, but this is dependent on the school’s policy. The result is that most young people moving into college needing to resit their exams will have to wait a whole year, having to focus on maths and/or English study alongside their vocational programme. Maintaining interest and motivation during this period is not easy and requires huge buy-in from students and their families, as well as talented and committed tutors.
Other difficulties include not having easy access to the data we need to ascertain where students’ knowledge gaps are. We run our own diagnostics, but exam board feedback sits with the schools and unless you can get it from them, GDPR makes it challenging to obtain.
For all these reasons, resit success at colleges is understandably limited, which is evident in the outcomes. This year, just 16 per cent of students re-taking GCSE maths passed with at least a grade 4, and 26 per cent for English – some 5 per cent down on pre-pandemic levels.
This is not good enough, and measures must be taken to address it. At LSEC, we are starting to see real progress in our outcomes in spite of the challenges the sector faces. We have implemented a range of tactics focused on supporting students.
Central to our approach is targeted and personalised learning. We use diagnostics to see where knowledge gaps exist and focus our teaching heavily on these. Using the awarding organisation’s result analysis tool helps us identify areas learners find most challenging so we can tailor teaching to their needs.
The Covid recovery fund has also given us the opportunity to provide additional tuition and workshops, immersing learners in study and providing exceptional support.
And, importantly, we use our most experienced teachers, who are briefed and trained by our director of English and maths to ensure the highest quality of teaching and learning.
But what the sector needs is more flexibility in terms of when to enter students for resits and appreciation of the associated costs. For example, could there be an entitlement for students to resit at school if they so wish?
Alternatively, could students resit their exams at college, but remain registered at their school (or even dual-rolled)? This would take the logistical issue of resits away from schools, while maintaining accountability.
A third option would be a later re-take, in January or February. This would give colleges time to assess students’ needs and get all the necessary arrangements in place, including access to school-held data. In turn, this would facilitate more targeted teaching, the implementation of additional support where needed – and a faster road to exams.
The importance of ensuring every learner gains a qualification in maths and English is paramount and I support it unequivocally. But it’s clear outcomes need to improve, and while colleges can do a lot, they could do so much more with a little more flexibility to operate.