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News & Views
Maths and English GCSE – what do the best colleges get right?
By Edd Brown, FEA Operations Director for Quality Improvement.

Providers of post-16 education and training are under no illusions about the challenges, value and importance of developing learner’s GCSE English and maths skills.

Conditions of funding means learners who have failed to reach a Grade C in English and maths have to keep studying these subjects otherwise a provider's funding allocation is affected.

But Colleges have not been the experts in delivering GCSEs, and the recent 2.1% decline in all GCSE results makes the task faced by colleges even more challenging.

This year’s figures revealed a big leap in 17+ learners taking the GCSE subjects but a decline in pass rates of around 8% in English and 6% in maths.

So what are the questions we must ask?

No one I speak to in colleges ever wants to make excuses, but there are real-world factors which must be dealt with.

Funding, accountability measures, Ofsted expectations, the motivation of learners and a shortage of highly skilled and qualified teachers all present substantial challenges.

But, in the main, providers recognise this is a learner’s last chance to improve their English and maths skills before they progress.

So the questions SLTs face are:

● How can we get it right?

● What can we do to improve the skills and understanding of learners?

No one has all the answers. But let me share with you seven tactics all the most successful colleges and skills providers have in place as a minimum:

1. They have an English and maths strategy

This is a three-year plan which sets out the college’s priorities and direction for maths and English. The focus is on outcomes primarily for English and Maths (GCSE and FS), but it should also have a strategy for developing a learner’s skills - regardless of prior attainment.

It must bridge the gap between core curriculum and English and maths development sessions. Learners need to see these connections.

2. Learner skills are planned-for over time

How many times does an observation report start with: “There was a missed opportunity to develop [skill X]”? This is less likely if the skills are planned-for - so don't let them happen by chance.

Sometimes staff need to create opportunities to develop these skills and not just rely on naturally occurring opportunities. Balance that with ensuring the skill development is relevant English and maths and adding value - not just because you are being observed. You’ll need to demonstrate how you track a learner’s progress over time and how their skills are improving. Some providers use a glossary for learners to record their English development.

3. They develop staff skills and confidence

The majority of missed classroom opportunities are because staff lack the skills or confidence in their own ability. Effective staff development programmes go beyond “I expect all staff to hold a level 2 qualification in English and maths.” What year did you achieve yours?

In the best colleges staff are given time to develop their own skills through regular, accessible and varied CPD. Will front or end-loading all of your CPD have the desired effect? Ensure your staff development plan is linked to your maths and English strategy.

4. They know they only have one chance to make a first impression

It’s week one, day one and a learner arrives for her first maths or English lesson. There is no teacher, and an A4 note stuck with blu tac to the door tells her she’s been moved groups and to a different room. How likely is she to go or even come back?

A group of learners once said to me the first lesson is the most important and if they enjoy their learning and the session was high quality they would be more likely to attend again (we could apply that to all their lessons!).

5. They link assessment and feedback through learner’s study programme

Tutorials need to link assessment feedback and set targets for skill development. Do you have a standardised approach for correcting errors in learners work? If you do, how consistently is this applied by tutors, and do learners understand it?

6. Learners’ expectations are clear

Learners are in no doubt about the standards and expectations around English and maths in all of their work. This includes spoken English and the correct use and spelling of technical language. Induction is the start of that process through structured tasks and activities which prepare them for your expectations. If you have a marking scheme, this is the time to train learners in its use.

7. They relentlessly focus on attendance

Attendance is tracked regularly with clear communication between tutors and the maths and English team.

Keeping it simple

If it was easy we’d all be outstanding. Clearly there are logistical challenges around staffing, timetables and trying to achieve a qualification in a fraction of the time afforded a secondary provider.

Nonetheless, some of these approaches can be made simple. The question is: how well and consistently are they applied? It is this simplicity that will bring about consistency in the learner experience and improve outcomes.

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