Saturday, 14 September 2013

The importance of being Ernestly mathematical

A huge culture change is sweeping through F.E. this Autumn.

Curriculum Areas who have for many years held sway as the 'leaders and innovators' basking in the spotlight of Principal approval, now find themselves usurped, no longer the pinnacle of SMT approbation. Like the eye of Sauron their gaze has swung away, fixed steely and unblinking on what has, until now, been the dusty, seldom swept, largely marginalised and barely noticed backwater of Maths, English and Functional Skills.

The importance of developing English and Maths to a Grade C or Level 2, beyond the age of 16 had been put forward by Prof Alison Wolf in her report on improving vocational education for 14 to 19-year-olds; "Good English and maths grades are fundamental to young people's employment and education prospects," she said.
"Individuals with very low literacy and numeracy are severely disadvantaged in the labour market."

Given that over one third of all young people leave post-16 education each year without having a GCSE A*-C in English and maths (2011 to 2012), and 44% did not achieve this in both subjects, yet many managed to leave with a Distinction on a L3 course (how is this possible I ask) and despite their importance in gaining any kind of paid work, around a fifth of young people are never taught maths and English after failing to achieve a GCSE pass at the age of 16.

Although this has long been discussed and lauded in the media and prominent in the minds of SMT and MIS, somehow it has failed to be 'real' in the minds of those who run Curriculum Areas or teach on Vocational Programmes. Colleges planning the introduction of the new 'programme of study' took proper account of the need for Maths and English, on paper; but as the new terms starts, many colleges across the country are re-evaluating them on an hourly basis.

Suddenly, those graveyard slots at the end of the day, or after several hours break or squeezed around the workshop and vocational programmes are not enough to guarantee achievement; suddenly there are not enough maths teachers; suddenly, attendance in those obscure little cupboards matters; suddenly requests for resources are not just being approved but actually sought out.

Suddenly; we matter.

We are no longer Oliver, holding out our bowl to be heaped with scathing amounts of 'No and No'.

Our bowls are filled; with books, software, pens, calculators etc. We are roomed in what can only be described as palatial suites (with windows), with computers (that work), interactive whiteboards and a chair for every learner.

Curriculum Heads answer our emails; they actively seek us out (many need maps to locate us), they speak in hushed tones of 'cooperation', 'shared values', 'support' and strangely of 'collaborative practice'.

We are no longer lepers, scratching a few crumbs from the remains of the feast. We are now honoured guests, consulted on the menu, offered the choicest cuts and biggest pieces of the cake.

Is this all we need?

No, this is a long standing issue that has resulted from decades of inattention, under appreciation of the size of the problem and sweeping it under the carpet. Now industry and Alison Wolf have finally managed to bring the issue into the light and generated sufficient impetus to force the change and we are very glad to see it.

The major concern now is just how miraculous a sea change is expected. We are now teaching students who have suffered years of poor Maths and English teaching, in a variety of situations and are now downhearted, disheartened and imbued with a sense of 'failure' and no appreciation of why Maths and English are so vital.They care nothing for 'programmes of study', retention, achievement and lagged numbers. They care that they are on their chosen course, studying to gain a qualification, to get a job. If they were good enough to be enrolled, this year, last year ... why do they now need to repeat ad nauseum Maths and English if they have already failed a couple of times?

Support for these learners is more essential now than ever. They need carrots, not sticks; good IAG to explain to them the importance of Maths and English, tutorial encouragement to keep going and acknowledgement from the Curriculum Areas that Maths and English are as important as their Vocational Course.

I tell them that a Grade C rather than a Grade D is worth an extra £140,000 over their working lives - that often generates some enthusiasm for passing the course if not the actual content.

This year, the spotlight will be on Maths and English departments; they will be examined, cajoled, pushed and berated in turn. Yet this is not just the responsibility of Maths and English; this is the collective responsibility of schools and Colleges (and everyone in them) to help these young people achieve not just their L3 Diploma in (vocational subject) but to equip them with the confidence to achieve, with self belief that they can do 'sums' and 'punctuation'.

What we are doing is part of the bigger puzzle; we have a larger part to play than in previous years but this is still a collective, collaborative effort. To educate our students, fully and wholly fit for economic success coupled with that joyous pride that they can conquer their demons and achieve a Grade C in Maths and English.

We ask that instead of turning the spotlight on us as if we were the new target or scapegoat, you turn the spotlight to see a set of departments and teachers who are emerging, blinking from years in the wilderness but never lost their faith in the young people they taught and will now, with your support, rise to the challenge we have been set, together.