English and maths

Last September, Ofsted’s annual review revealed that;

 

“Too few students [in the Further Education and Skills Sector] make sufficient progress in improving their skills in English and mathematics, because the teaching they receive is simply not good enough”

 

This came as a result of the extremely poor GCSE grades in the sector (6.5% and 7% A*-C in English and maths respectively) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranking the UK as 21st for Literacy and 22nd for numeracy.

 

Following this report, the press went crazy as they do and it is fair to say that people within FE were a little disheartened by this. After all, much of the criticism was aimed at the teachers and the newly formed Study Programmes which had only been in place for a year; hardly a chance to find its feet.

 

Press

 

As a result of the Programmes of Study, the huge shift in focus on English and maths led  to a massive recruitment drive from just about every college in the country, meaning lots of new, inexperienced teachers AND lots of non-specialists taking on a maths or English role too – Of course teaching was going to be inconsistent!

 

So a friend of mine – the ‘Secret College Tutor’ decided to write back to Ofsted and put a bit of context to the figures they were quoting. For those of you that haven’t read the article, it basically argues against the criticism and makes some pertinent points, one of which being:

 

“Although results weren’t great last year, there will be thousands of learners who will have improved and still be working towards passing their English and maths. They’re just not reflected in the statistics yet”
It’s worth noting that since the release of the report, there has been a clear shift in the focus of Inspection. In fact, 72% of colleges were told that they Require Improvement or Inadequate between Sept 2014 to January 2015. These results in the main stemmed from poor outcomes for learners and teaching learning and assessment in English and maths.

 

So it seems that a collegiate approach to improving English and maths is the way to go. Apart from the obvious reasons to try and improve the English and maths skills of our learners, it is morally the right thing to do so that they are properly equipped to play an active role in society.

 

I want to examine what this means to the non-English or maths teacher:

 

Seeing as it’s Ofsted that have driven this agenda, let’s start with what they say about English and maths within the CIF. The Framework currently states the following with regards to Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment:

 

‘Staff promote, where appropriate, English, mathematics, ICT and employability skills exceptionally well and ensure that learners are well-equipped with the necessary skills to progress to their next steps.’
 

For me, this is quite ambiguous and weak. English and maths development should be a golden thread that runs through every session, where naturally occurring opportunities are taken to promote skill development and learning activities provide meaningful ways to develop the skills. This could include any of the following:

 

English – Improving SP&G, vocabulary, comprehension, summarising, presentation skills and using formal/informal language.
Maths – Solving basic problems, interpreting information, measuring, scaling, ratios.

 

I often hear teachers proclaiming that they embed English and maths really well into their lessons and upon exploring how, I usually find myself at a loss, hearing things such as “the learners were discussing the topic in groups, there’s the English”.

 

The word ’embed’ is such a depressing word. It reminds me of planting. Don’t get me wrong, I love plants, I just think that planting English and maths into lessons is a pointless task, I mean, every lesson in the world should have English and maths used in some way surely? But what good is that without honing in and trying to improve specific skills? Does embedding help the learners? Do they get feedback on what English and maths they’ve used to help them improve? Mostly not I’d say.

 

I personally believe that the term should be ‘to develop’ English and maths. If you are going to acknowledge any English and maths in a lesson, then the least it should do is develop a learners knowledge, understanding or skill in the respective subject. For example, if I was asking learners to complete a piece of written work, this alone is not enough. I should ensure that they are given time to feedback to one another on spelling, grammar and punctuation. Further, I should aim to develop their writing, perhaps so that they are more concise? How about I get them to reduce the wordage by 10%. In editing the work, they are having to develop their use of vocabulary, whilst ensuring that their work is coherent. An example in maths may be to produce a cost sheet of resources and labour time, calculating VAT for any vocational work completed i.e. Hairdressing. Here learners could explore and develop their skills in the process of calculating percentages. EMIYPI’m no English or maths specialist, but I see real value in developing learners ability in these subjects. I am passionate about helping others to find simple ways to do this and have self published a pocket book with some ideas that teachers could consider using in their lessons. Hope you find it useful.

 

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