Improving young people’s maths skills needs major investment finds new report

A new report into the state of mathematics education across England’s Further Education sector, including why fewer than 20% of 16 to 18 year-olds pass their GCSE Mathematics resit, has found that major investment in leadership training and teacher professional development is required to make more significant and sustained improvements.

The Mathematics in Further Education Colleges Project (MiFEC), led by academics from the University of Nottingham’s School of Education and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is the most extensive research yet into the changing state of mathematics education in England’s Further Education colleges.

In their report, the MiFEC team explain how a range of policies, processes, and people interact at different colleges and across the FE sector, to either support or hinder improvement in mathematics learning.

Changes to the Condition of Funding – commonly referred to as the GCSE re-sit policy – which aims to tackle low prior attainment and increase GCSE passes in Maths at grade 4 has raised the status of mathematics in colleges.

However, interviews with students and staff, highlighted the complex challenges of providing good mathematics education to 16 to 18 year-olds in FE colleges. The researchers found that variations between colleges, in management and operational strategies, curriculum and teaching approaches, as well as in the attitudes and aspirations of students, need to be better understood by policymakers, managers and teachers if more young people are to make progress in mathematics. To achieve these improvements the report recommends investment in professional development by:

  • Establishing a national programme of training and professional development for the cross-college managers of mathematics who are critical to driving system improvements.
  • Better understanding of, and training for, the distinctive challenges of teaching students with low GCSE grades and disengaged post-16 learners in FE colleges for whom mathematics is now compulsory.
  • Developing teachers’ expertise in using and adapting teaching methods that are responsive to FE students’ personal, academic, vocational and emotional needs, allowing them to build confidence and resilience.

Many of those interviewed by the researchers did not consider the current qualifications and curriculum pathways to be appropriate for low-attainers. Moreover, students can be offered different opportunities depending on which college they happen to attend.

“The importance of mathematical skills to individuals, to the economy and to society is well documented and widely agreed upon. Increasing the skills base in England is therefore a national priority as evidenced in the Industrial Strategy. Our comprehensive analysis shows that these improvements cannot be achieved simply or cheaply. If the Government is committed to long-term sustained improvement in mathematics skills for all students up to the age of 18, it must invest substantial resources into doing so, and avoid the regular changes in policy that can hinder progress.”

Cheryl Lloyd, Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation said: “Post-16 maths is a key priority for the Nuffield Foundation as we want all young people to have the skills needed to thrive in our society. This report provides important insights into the complexities of maths education in the post-16 system, highlighting the value of investing in the professional development of teachers in further education colleges to improve the outcomes of post-16 maths students. We look forward to the publication of the research team’s final report later this year which will also draw on analysis of student progression and the views of young people.”

The full report can be downloaded here. A final report with recommendations will be published in the summer.

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