Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The U-turns in FE, what do they mean?

Some major changes are coming around within FE Maths in the near future. With the implementation of the new-spec GCSE, Maths and English staff rooms across FE have been daunted with the idea that students will struggle within the new specification, especially those who have never attempted it before.

There is a mass of students who are currently sitting current specification GCSE Maths, hoping that the majority get the result they need to achieve before the end of this academic year. With only around 30% of students every year in FE achieving a grade C by the end of their 1 year resit, there is speculation as to how FE will continue to provide for those learners who will be attempting the new specification within the next academic year. Some will say that the learners will need to adapt, however if we keep changing the goalposts, they will lose faith in education altogether. Isn't promoting lifelong learning what Further Education is all about?

One of the biggest U-turns that is expected to come about for the next academic year is the retraction of the funding policy stating that any student with a grade "D" (or soon to be 3) will have to resit their GCSE in English or Maths, instead the suggestion is that we can flexibly offer either a functional skills qualification to suit the learners needs. If learners are primarily looking at a more vocational route, there is a lot to be said for putting learners into functional skills classes over GCSE.

This U-turn may avoid a serious issue around getting students from a 3 to a 4, where at the lower end of a 3 grade, you could be seeing students who were closer to an E. In Further Education Maths, there is a massive amount of differentiation that is needed to ensure we are catering for students who are 1 mark or 19 marks off a D grade. Tutors should have the flexibility to move students to other qualifications. For some students, it is not about the maths certificate, it is about the confidence in developing their Mathematics skills for working life, and the department for education should be responsive to that need. It's just a shame it's taken two years of beating students down to get there.

Are we preparing students with maths skills for the workplace? (Image courtesy of

Paula Mcgregor put the issues down well, much better than I could, in a TES article surrounding the need for students to resit their English and Maths qualifications (Link found here). Many flaws are apparent in the current system, where we have students who are sitting a qualification which may not be targeted towards their main aim, it could be that our students want an apprenticeship, so why do we need them to sit GCSE to get there.

As an educator myself, I am all for helping students achieve their ambitions and stretching students to achieve. I do not advocate picking the easy option, but more for treating our young people like the adults we want them to become. If you sit down and ask a student what they want to do, a lot will say they don't like Maths but they just want to be able to get a job by the end. Here is the true disconnect when we force students to sit GCSE Maths with D Grades. I am thankful that the government have responded to this massive need in our current educational system.

Another serious U-turn from the DfE is the lowering of a pass mark to a 4 instead of a 5. This would have foreseen massive issues in getting students from a 4-5 as well as identifying how we can accommodate a classroom for GCSE that have a mixture of 3/4 students within it. Justine Greening suggested that "Where employers, FE providers and universities currently accept a grade C we would expect them to continue recognising a grade 4." suggesting that students will not have to attend compulsory English and maths should they achieve a grade 4. This can actually have some issues in itself however.

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One of the biggest issues is grade 3. What is the condition of funding for them? Do we continue with grade 3 for GCSE resits and 2/1 for functional skills? With a mixture of different grades that students will achieve in English and Maths, colleges across the country will have to come up with rigorous diagnostic assessments in order to implement how they are going to differentiate pupils who are at different levels of their Maths education.

The biggest challenges for FE seem to have been quashed, I just hope that Justine makes good on her promise to remove the compulsory need before the next academic year, or we may all be in for a tough ride. There is a lot of hope for our young people, but the system needs to adapt, rather than our students, to the priorities of the employers that will hire young people from college.

What do you think? Do you believe that we should adapt to the climate? Do you think this is a bad move for FE students across the country? Let me know in the comments what you think and how we can make Maths education within FE more accessible to our students.

- Matt

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The FE Review: Mathsconf9

An exciting and brilliant day of activities and exploring methods within Mathematics. I was lucky enough to be able to go along to Mathsconf9 based in Bristol today and as an FE Maths lecturer, it was interesting to see what changes will be made to the GCSE as well as the opportunity to connect with other maths professionals and small businesses that were present at the event.

Start of the day, I arrive nervously at the venue, City Academy Bristol, which was an excellent venue for the event, plenty of space to get around and lots to do in the early stages of the event. I visited a few stalls initially and had discussions around maths practices. One of the best people I saw was Corbett Maths displaying his revision cards at the show. We had a long discussion about maths changes to the GCSE Maths specification. It was a pleasure to share such views and to see the resources that were displayed, for me it was a great welcome and gave me the confidence to talk to some of the other stands at the event, you can buy their excellent revision cards here

EZYMaths Matt Hawes was also at the event talking about their platform for Maths revision and preparation. I have a good conversation with him about the platform, a very slick and complete maths package for students in Maths ready for the new specification with tailored videos to each question that was asked within the package. I would highly recommend you check it out here.

Then I went to AQA Maths, the current exam board for GCSE Maths that my institution uses, I spoke to Helen Arman, relationship manager for AQA in detail about the state of FE resits in Mathematics and the challenges ahead for FE students. AQA did not fail to deliver their vision to help every student and raise potential, giving me a plethora of resources to take to my workplace on Monday, I am really excited to share these with my colleagues and see their faces when I present them with the multitude of helpful ideas and posters that they gave me.

I went to several workshops during the day, each with their own takeaway message. I tweeted a lot about the events as they unfolded (follow feguidebook to see more) and felt that I had gained useful insight to the delivery of GCSE Maths for the FE students I will be teaching next year. Here is an overview of the workshops I attended, featuring the notes I made as well as my overall thoughts on how we can apply what I gained to FE Maths:

Intro & Speed Dating by Mark McCourt (@Emathsuk) and Andrew Taylor (@AQAMaths) 

Mark welcomed everyone in the theatre, I sat on one of the many places on tables near the front and was able to have a clear view of the whole talk. Mark started showing off a rather sleek format for Maths education called Complete Maths from La Salle Education. I really liked the look of this, and the benefits of the membership are massive, especially the tickets to the conferences that run across the year (Cardiff anybody?). Mark made a comment about "I cans instead of Lesson Objectives" which really rang true for my students, getting them to consolidate and secure concepts before moving forward with complex mathematics problems. Andrew from AQA Maths also presented his support for the event and encouraged us to attend his talks, which luckily enough I was aiming to go to already!

Speed dating was an interesting affair, meeting like-minded professionals like Kyle Mcdonald (@jk_mcd) who wrote an excellent blog entry on the event already as well as other FE colleagues from different colleges (@macbeanmaths) discussing different resources and functional skills applications for our learners. It was good to know that FE was in good standing at the event with a fair amount of teachers from this sector who are preparing and getting set up for the new specification in the next academic year.

I even got a share for my four four's resource from @MacBeanMaths

Nearly There - Christian Seager & Mel Muldowney (@Just_Maths)

An interesting first workshop by this dynamic team. Christian and Mel clearly care about their students and they have a clear culture of getting students through their GCSE Maths exams.
Some of the biggest takeaways I got were some behaviour strategies, such as getting students who aren't doing anything to write a post it note with their reasons and emailing it to their parents, as well as an in-detail look at how much cross-over there is from Foundation to Higher (around 30% of content)

They also gave some practical advice and tips on a variety of exam questions in which students struggled, there is a lot of Speed, Distance, Time questions within GCSE as well as Frequency Trees and Venn Diagrams that FE students will be tested on within the new spec. They also drew on making activities simpler to access, as Mel put it, the "I'm not going to finish this, so there is no point in starting" concept.

A fantastic presentation from @Just_Maths a TES Award winning Maths team (they met Dara O'Briain too which made me slightly jealous), be sure to follow them on Twitter.

Where your Y11's will go wrong in this Summer's Maths GCSE and what you can do about it now (@MrBartonMaths)

Top 10 poorest answered topics from +mrbartonmaths1 
Craig's delivery of his presentation was exceptional. I thoroughly enjoyed this workshop as it was active, engaging and showed off a lot of the FREE resources that Craig has been working on alongside AQA Maths. His use of Diagnostic Questions from their collaboration gave me food for thought in FE and how we can do things differently that our students may not have seen before. You can find a link to that resource here, I will be signing up!

One of the biggest takeaway's from this was that students do not learn from just going over past papers again and again if the concepts are not secure in the first place. Craig linked research to each of his slides and I will be looking over these in the near future. Craig talked about practicing key concepts in engaging ways and allowed opportunities to make connections to other concepts that students should secure through purposeful practice tasks.

The biggest gain in his whole presentation was the top 10 struggling areas that students struggle with based on use of his diagnostic questions. These are shown here and if gives us a frame to see what skills we need to practice with our students in FE to push D's to C's. Check out Craig's Podcast too (linked here). A really interesting workshop just before Lunch!

New GCSE Maths Exams: How our questions work and what examiners look for (@AQAMaths)

This was probably the workshop I was most intrigued about from the title. Andrew Taylor explored issues within the GCSE Maths questions and identified how they spread their marks across their papers to meet the criteria for the new specification.

This workshop gave an insight into the new papers, which for us in FE is very useful and practical for how we can work with those students who are moving from the old specification to the new spec in the next academic year. They shared examples of longer problems which I have featured here as well as how these are assessed as well as providing us with an exemplar of student responses to one of their GCSE Maths questions.
Another higher question example!

An example of a question is as follows:

"A knife is twice the cost of a spoon. 8 Spoons and 12 Knives cost £46.08. Work out the cost of 1 Knife"

Depending on the layout of the paper, you may not receive a mark for putting that 2s = 1k as they can only allocate so many AO1 (identification) marks in their papers which are usually reserved for 1 mark questions near the start of their papers, it gave me great insight into how we need to develop skills and secure concepts within maths so that our students can adapt to whatever question is thrown at them. As some of the colleagues in the conference mentioned, sometimes students could not even see the algebra within the question itself so we have to step up to ensure that students develop their approach to problem solving.

An insightful and interesting talk from AQAMaths, from one of the best exam boards for our students!

What can teachers learn from PISA? (@MickBlaylock)

"Every Year I teach, I get a little bit better"
I wasn't sure what to expect from this one, but it was an intimate and interesting workshop featuring Mick, a well experienced Maths teacher discussing research within PISA, ten questions for Maths teachers. It was interesting to see the diversity in the room from people who are teaching maths in different sectors.

Some of the more concrete takeaways from this were based around challenging students without raising maths anxiety as well as developing the need for elaboration strategies in dealing with complex Maths problems, this approach is especially helpful for developing concepts within functional skills learners.

Mick ran through the most of the 10 things, however due to time constraints we didn't get a chance to hear more. You can read the whole thing online in all it's glory here which I will be doing alongside other research that I will be undertaking as part of my QTLS qualification.

The massive takeaway for me, it one of the comments that Mick made;

"Every Year I teach, I get a little bit better"

Which rings so true to new Maths teachers and anyone who teaches within FE today to not lose hope in their own abilities to teach the new specification from the next academic year.

Overall Opinions of MathsConf9

Overall, MathsConf9 was an excellent value package, with many excellent speakers and a positive message throughout the community. I found myself talking to many different people all with passion, inspired by their own practice and thinking about ways in which we can improve the state of Mathematics education within the UK.

In the final remarks, a nice touch was to send a postcard to ourselves in a few months with a commitment to what we are going to do from today to improve. Unfortunately I couldn't find mine in my bag at the time, but my commitment will be to develop my delivery to secure concepts in maths rather than teach to an exam to try to get students through.

Overall. A highly recommended CPD event especially to the FE Community, be sure to visit La Salle Educations MathsConf Page to see if there is an event near you.

Thank you so much for reading, and I look forward to sharing what I learn over the next few months in teaching maths inspired by the amazing people and community I became a part of Saturday! Be sure to check out my twitter to see what was shared throughout the exciting day! (Twitter Link here)

- Matt

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Holistic Approach: Investing in Student's goals and ambitions

On the preface, further education is all about the Holistic approach, according to Patel (2003) we can describe holistic learning as a method of self improvement where we consider aspects of a students character in order to help them within every aspect of their working life. An example of this may be a student who is studying Level 2 Bricklaying, who has a complete programme of English and Maths embedded within their practice of learning about the trade. Are we doing the right thing by our learners within Mathematics education in FE to ensure that we are doing our best for our learners? I will be discussing the methods and approaches you can use to develop the Holistic approach within FE teaching.

Regardless of what you teach within FE or any educational sector, we have a duty to give a good, well rounded educational experience to every learner in the room. This is no easy feat, we have a lot of students who can be resistant to change as well as those who do not see the value in education. If we have learnt anything from our student groups about their approach to education, it is fair to suggest that they may not have the right approach when they step foot within your Mathematics classroom as another year of resits lies ahead.

Holistic Education considers a whole-person based approach to learning (Image Courtesy of

When we look at learning styles, we are usually greeted by the same terminology, visual, auditory, kinetic etc for ways in which to teach our students. as a new practitioner myself, I aimed to look at ways in which we combine different elements of learning in order to benefit our students the most. In my opinion, this may just be masking an even bigger educational issue, that the student in your class does not see any value in learning and it's down to you to change their perception of that fact. Why should you care about this? If you can win your students over within the first few weeks of their education in FE, you may be able to inspire them to rewrite their story and focus on their self-development throughout the 2 years or so they spend with you. I talked about the idea of "Winning Hearts and Minds" where I explored Maths activities that can be used in the early days of your new maths year, a link to that can be found here (Winning Hearts and Minds)

Eugene Sadler-Smith (1996) suggested that learning styles are a blanket term, leading to the conclusion that it is up to us to suggest different approaches in how we develop our practice. As a new teacher, this is going to be tough but perseverance is key in ensuring that you develop your practice and consider new approaches to doing the same thing. If you are happy to do the same thing again and again, I would encourage you to become inspired by the different developing technologies that are available to you, especially now with the advancement of mobile technology and e-learning.

Some of my students prefer to be taught in a lecture style, get the facts then complete an activity based on what was discussed. This applies heavily to the GCSE Maths evening classes I teach, where learners are motivated and able to consider the deeper understanding to underpin their knowledge of a certain skill. This will not be the case for the majority of your learners within FE. I work with students who are engrossed by tabloid society, facebook fake news and popular social trends to inform their opinion of the world. A typical example would be the people on TOWIE or Made in Chelsea who embrace a lavish lifestyle without doing very much of anything.

Students love a bit of drama and story-telling (Image Courtesy of
Here is my advice for those holistic-sists (that's not a word) out there, if you are seeking to do it all in one hour then you will struggle, instead focus on one primary mission first. What are you trying to achieve and leave your students when they walk out of your classroom. For some of my lessons, this may be in the sense of knowing that you can't work out the area of a triangle the same way you can with a rectangle. The holistic approach within FE focuses on how you can embed these skills across their current interests and focus on the wants and wishes of your learners. If they can see the value in what they need to learn, they are likely to retain that information for future use.

A great example that I used was discussing percentage change within a context, I applied the learning to a few different contexts such as a restaurant discount, beauty salon sale and other things that my students could make tangible reference too. I feel that if you can't relate their learning to something that may be of interest, you may as well hand them a textbook to practice their basic skills in what you are trying to convey. You also have to embrace different technologies within your lessons, I actively use Activinspire software over PowerPoint as my platform of preference to integrate IT across my classroom. I can get students to work on the board for me and take control of their own learning journey, those OFSTED people love that!

Being Holistic isn't easy and takes time, as you learn more about the different areas you work with, you'll realise how complex and complicated the material the students have to deal with is. Armed with some years of experience, I can quickly pick out examples which relate to my students subject area, and guide them towards real life examples. I did speed distance time calculations based on the slowest London marathon runner (Brian the Snail in 2011) in the hope that they won't forget the message that I gave my students regarding methods on formula use. The lesson is then further referred to for those students who struggle inside a classroom with a helpful YouTube video I created on that particular subject just here:

It didn't take much to create resources that your students can use again and again. The Holistic approach is all about how you can allow your students to relate their learning to what they already perceive, if that means that I have to sink to the depths of explaining why Joey Essex's net worth is nearly £6 million and what this actually means then so be it. I am allowed to teach my students differently, and as educators we should strive for excellence in what we do. You may not be told you're excellent or that you're good enough, but for what it's worth, if you got this far then you do care about your students and wanting to learn something new which in my book makes you excellent already.

My tips for the Holistic Approach are as follows, to give some practical advice:

1) Embrace IT and New Technology: Consider getting your students to use Kahoot! for simple fun quizzes on the subject area through their Mobile Phones. Use the different platform of tech available to you, your college will have it somewhere, I am still experimenting with the idea of getting a Visualiser for my classroom!

2) Relate the majority of your learning to vocational studies/real life: You may not have students who are all doing the same area, however they may want a part-time job, show them that their manager would have to do a timetable to work out their rota of shifts for the week, show them the skills that they need to step up to the next position. It may be difficult with all aspects of maths but it can be achieved. You never know, you may learn something new too.

3) Observe, Observe, Observe: This was apparent to me today when I found that my students were struggling with formula, their main programme lecturer uses different terminology to explain it than I do, you'll surprise yourself with the behaviour and attitude shift in the majority of your students when you see them within their own area of interest and how their tutor can relate to them on a much more personal and impressionable level.

4) Stress the importance of a healthy life: Tell your students every time they see you about the importance of looking after themselves and a healthy lifestyle. We may not be perfect examples of this but imparting knowledge on how to be physically and mentally healthy will help them deal with future problems they may have. Some students have a lot of baggage when they walk into your class, so just take your time and talk to them about being happy. Remember, more money doesn't mean happiness and unrealistic expectations of them shouldn't be set. They are people, let's value them as such.

5) Lead by Example: Are you the example they would want to be? Are you empathetic, understanding and easily approachable regarding any issues. Consider reading ways in which you can help your students through self-help reading materials. My favourite is Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People". Books like this can teach you something valuable about the way in which you work to help others rather than being just another cog in the all powerful educational system. If you tell your students to read more, than bring a book in to read between your lessons, show them you are putting your money where your mouth is.

I hope you've enjoyed this post about the Holistic Approach, if you've got this far then thank you for supporting the FE Maths Guidebook. On twitter I am where we share regular postings and updates regarding education and best practice.
I am going to MathsConf9 Saturday, and I am hoping to see a lot of aspirational teachers and make new friends who are also excited to be on this educational journey with me. If you are attending, be sure to say hello!

Enjoy your weekend teachers, and remember, be happy!

- Matt

Monday, 6 March 2017

Living the Good Life, not the Outstanding one!

An interesting reflection on my own practice tonight, inspired a lot by my brother and how we discussed what I did day to day. I spoke to him about my reflections on my own competency within Maths teaching and how I can teach students about different concepts day-to-day. I don't know what I am aiming to achieve, I was already rated as Good in a recent observation and that is what it says on the tin, good.

Prior to this observation, I worked hard to try and show myself that I can be "Outstanding", what does it mean to be Outstanding. I would say that every person in my department is the definition of Outstanding. We start with the support that we provide our students, conversations about student behaviour and how to counteract the ideas that are floating around about Outstanding teaching practice. I believe that we are too eager to get to Outstanding within the department as a measure of how effective we are as teachers. This is simply not reflective of what we do day-to-day.

My own practice I believe is good, is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Do I think that I am the best maths teacher ever, definitely not, I know of amazing people through the Twittersphere (follow @feguidebook for more examples) who dedicate many "love hours" to their own professional practice. As I reflect on my own practice in Mathematics teaching, I don't believe that Outstanding should be the benchmark for success when it can be arguably seen as a way to drag teachers into stress, competition and nervousness.

Another good day, another goal to achieve (Image courtesy of

Is there a competitive element to the observations that we have? I don't believe there is, but I can see the need for teachers to feel that they are competent at delivery of their subject. As I learn more about the teaching environment, I learn about the way that everyone I work with is Outstanding in their own right, the reality is that we don't actually want to be Outstanding, we just want to be good at what we do. So that's what we should aim for, especially as a new teacher.

I have always been good, I have never been Outstanding within my own practice, told many times of the good things I do within my classroom but never given the sacred title of delivering an Outstanding lesson, and in this way I am relieved. I don't become complacent within my own practice and I reflect actively on how I can work towards my students best interests. The biggest thing I learnt from the last few months of reflection is to never aim for Outstanding, as this could lead to a pitfall of over-working, a change in work-life balances and a shift in my attitude towards the profession I care so deeply about.

Are you living the good life? (Image courtesy of

A teaching observation is a snapshot of what we deliver across the board, Outstanding is hard, and for those teachers who are able to achieve this without much deliberation I salute you, that doesn't mean I am envious of the title, it just means that we may have different methods on how we deliver to our students. I refuse to accept that Jonny in my class learns best through one method than another from a brief visit in my classroom by an observer. I also refuse to believe that I could be working harder to let my students show I am "aspirational" in my practice. We are only human, with human emotions, and yes believe it or not, we can be stressed too. The best thing to teach your students, is the value of being healthy, happy and enjoying what you do day-to-day. There is no greater value than the value of personal and mental health which should be placed in higher regard considering our students nature towards their own learning.

So what are my tips for today, simple. Don't aim for outstanding, aim for good. Your managers may say you are "un-aspirational" or "underachieving" but this is a much bigger issue then just being good at your job, this is about your work-life balance. I do not plan lessons every night, I don't work at the weekends, and I certainly don't spend time panicking about the state of my classroom. There are some things that are more important in teaching than Outstanding. How about we put more emphasis on being effective within the time you have and change the standard of teaching as a profession. Why don't we place emphasis on staff wellbeing, student interests and keeping what we do a lovely and supportive environment. That's what we all want, to be valued in what we do.

Like I said, don't worry about Outstanding, good is good. Nobody should ever tell you that you are different for wanting to be good, I may not ever be Outstanding, but I will value time in my life over work time to keep me in the job that I love every single day, without any undue stress. Nearly two years into my profession and I am still learning new things every day, I don't ever want to stop learning and competing for my students learning, that's what we should be focussed on, not on overloading ourselves with heavy marking and workloads, which I have seen drive excellent people away from education entirely. I leave you with this, nobody knows your students like you, and nobody will know your dedication to your craft. Don't let a grade dictate how you feel about what you enjoy to do.

Have an enjoyable week teachers!

- Matt
(Twitter: @feguidebook)