Sunday, 13 October 2013

Maths for the future, not Band Aids for the present.

Let's be honest; Maths teaching and qualifications in England is poor; inadequate even.

The recent OECD report on Maths and English, demonstrates:

  • England's 16 to 24-year-olds are falling behind their Asian and European counterparts.
  • England is 21st for numeracy out of 24 countries.
  • The OECD's Andreas Schleicher warned of a shrinking pool of skilled workers.
  • Unlike other developed countries, the study also showed that young people in England are no better at these tests than older people, in the 55 to 65 age range.
  • The study shows that there are 8.5 million adults in England and Northern Ireland with the numeracy levels of a 10-year-old

 Young and Old are equally unskilled; that is indicative of a long standing problem.

We are no better than ten years ago, when as part of the Skills for Life strategy, a nationwide survey of basic skills (Skills for Life Needs and Impact Survey) was published in 2003. The survey showed that of the adult population aged 16–65 in England:

  • 5.2 million (16%) have literacy skills below Level 1 (equivalent to a GCSE at D – G
  • 15 million (46%) have numeracy skills below Level 1 (equivalent to a GCSE at D – G
  • Only 18% achieved Level 2 in both literacy and numeracy (equivalent to a GCSE at A* - C).
 The following qualifications, achieved by adult learners, aged 16 years and older, then counted towards the Skills for Life target:

  • Adult literacy and numeracy certificates (based on the 2000 national standards)
  • Key Skills qualifications in 'Communication' and 'Application of Number'
  • GCSE Maths and English

The Adult Literacy and Numeracy certificates were pulled and deemed worthless. So recently that a learner completing and achieving the certificate in June, found that it was worthless when enrolling on a new course in September of the same year.

In TEN years of ‘improvements’, new courses, new directions, new qualifications, new foci, we are no further to reaching the numeracy and literacy levels of our business competitors and as a nation, we are still failing our learners, young and old.

Tweaking the Maths Qualifications

Functional skills were originally specified in the Tomlinson report: Final Report of the Working Group on 14-19 Reform (2004) and were introduced as a replacement to Key Skills in 2007 as part of a three-year pilot programme to develop qualifications that would be suitable for all learners, including adults. The three-year functional skills pilot ended in summer 2010 and An independent evaluation of the functional skills three-year pilot was published by the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) in March 2011.

A further evaluation, completed in December 2010, assessed the potential impact of replacing the Certificates in Adult Literacy and Adult Numeracy (Skills for Life qualifications) with functional skills in English and mathematics from September 2012. This evaluation has not been published. In January 2012, awarding organisations were advised that Skills for Life qualifications would be replaced by functional skills qualifications from September 2012.

The CBI, including Sir Terry Leahy, the chief executive of Tesco and Sir Stuart Rose, the chairman of Marks & Spencer, have both spoken about the difficulty of finding literate and numerate recruits. And a report on functional skills for the CBI indicated that more than half of employers thought young people applying for jobs were inarticulate, unable to perform simple calculations or understand written instructions.

The Functional Skills Pilot was born.

These qualifications were designed to introduce learners to Applied Maths; maths they take learn, use and apply in a Vocational Setting. GCSE maths is designed to impart Mathematical knowledge in isolation.

It hasn't worked. Functional Skills have been running for six years and standards are lower than ever.

Why are we running a two tier system?
  • O level and CSE
  • O level and GCSE
  • GCSE and Basic Skills
  • GCSE and Adult Skills
  •  GCSE and Key Skills
  • GCSE and Functional Skills
Are we seriously still saying that learners can be segregated at age 13 into those who will achieve and those who won't?Historically, two tier systems in a particular subject have been proved to be both ineffectual and damaging to a learners understanding, future job prospects and a limiting factor in their employability or progression to university.

The recent OECD report has shown that this approach does not work and if continued, will only add to the problems faced by learners of all ages in their lives, finding a job, progression to university and simply condems them to a 2nd class existence.

Wolf wanted to see all students under 19 progressing towards GCSE A*-C passes in English and maths by pursuing a course that leads towards ultimate GCSE success. Rightly scathing about Key Skills, Wolf questioned the value of ‘equivalence’ qualifications especially where grade C in maths and English is not achieved.

For Functional Skills, issues around teaching Functional Skills were raised, e.g.
  • The need for a wide range of vocational contexts
  • Most vocational teachers are not maths and English experts
  •  “Serious conceptual problems” with Functional Skills, focussing on the massive challenges of teaching skills in a wide variety of contexts, to different learners in different centres, yet being subjected to a set of exam questions that is the same for every learner.

And this is the proposed fix, the cure all for our ills? A qualification with 'serious conceptual problems'?

Consequences for learners of this:

In many colleges, learners have entered onto courses at L2 with a D, E or F grade at GCSE. With support and help from lecturers they have achieved good results and progressed to L3 courses. These are learners, who for the most part are coming out with E3 and E2 on the initial Assessment for Maths and English. Yet they are on an ‘A’ level equivalent course?

They have not retaken Maths or English GCSE and have progressed to roughly E3 or perhaps in some cases L1 on Functional Skills. Many are in their final year before University and have not achieved the required level of Maths and English to study at Degree level.

The Government have now insisted that learners must achieve a Grade C or equivalent in Maths and English before they leave. This has resulted in pushing the problem further up the system instead of dealing with it head on, at source.

Maths teaching and/or the Maths qualification itself is inadequate for the task.

Putting a L2 equivalent (so called) when in reality it is roughly ¾ of the C grade for GCSE, with the final ¼ providing the necessary skills to achieve a Grade C, is not the answer. It is cheating learners, employers and universities of proper preparation.

I am not blaming schools for the problem. They are constrained in myriad ways and finding good maths teachers is a difficult and sometimes impossible problem.

I am not blaming F.E. who take on learners in good faith to develop their vocational skills for future employment or University.

The issue is wider than that; it is a collective responsibility. The mantra ‘I can’t do maths’ is socially acceptable, but it shouldn’t be.

Fiddling with the maths qualifications, patching them up, applying sticking plaster to the problem, covering it up with bolt-on ‘Skills qualifications’, introducing spurious 'equivalencies' rather than facing the facts, unpicking the issues and putting them right is the problem.

Maths education requires a complete overhaul.

  • The pace of maths education is too slow; steaming is needed to develop learners at the right pace for them
  • There should be one route; encompassing both vocational and academic knowledge not GCSE and Functional Skills
  • Maths education should encompass a L3 component, the development of an advanced qualification to equip learners for the practical application of their GCSE, and reinforcing their knowledge of the key concepts
  • A L4 component should be standardised across university courses and built into Higher Level Apprenticeships
  • Maths should be taught by maths specialists
  • Providers should be able to offset the cost of providing expert teachers/lecturers to vocational areas via the ILR return
  • Providers would not receive this benefit if they do not hire specialist staff
  • Teachers/lecturers should be able to access CPD with a maths focus to develop their understanding of maths in their subject areas
  • Teacher / Lecturer qualifications should have clear maths components
  • A national survey of maths teachers should be undertaken to gauge and collect their views on the issues
 The recent OECD report is both shocking and shameful and a true indictment of our collective failure in education and Government to face up to the issue.

If we do not now have an honest and open discussion with schools, F.E. Universities, Employers and Government and collectively put our cards on the table and our hands in the air, we will, as a nation, continue to fail our learners and hobble our economy, so that when the next OECD report is published, we won’t be near the bottom, but truly off the scale.

This is not the time to worry about our own ego, egg on our face, political mudslinging or a question of blame; it is time to face the fact:

Maths education in England is wretchedly poor and getting worse year on year. It's time to change. 

It's time to listen.