Saturday, 22 April 2017

How to teach Functional Skills Maths: The FEMaths Approach

As someone who has taught Functional Skills Maths for the last 2 years and has managed the course itself for the majority of that time, I feel that I have managed to grasp some concepts and some best practice for teaching this subject in a Further Education environment, or at the very least, I hope that I am doing the best by my students within this respect.

For those colleagues who are teaching in secondary and considering the shift towards teaching further education mathematics, Functional Skills can be a rewarding programme to teach for young people. I would stress some restraint before thinking that it is an easier version of GCSE delivery for older students, Functional Skills (especially at Level's 1 and 2) will challenge your students in their mathematic ability and how they apply mathematic concepts to real life situations. An employer values functional skills qualifications as they build in problem solving skills alongside the basic mathematics that the majority of the qualification covers within a workplace setting.

Functional Skills in English, Maths and ICT were originally introduced in education from 2012, preceding it was a lengthy review of how young people achieve qualifications within these areas that differentiate from GCSE to apply contextual problem solving skills that employers value. Many major awarding bodies now accredit these qualifications within educational centres with many taking steps towards flexibility for apprenticeships and having their own take on what their questions are structured like.

Students are just embarking on their Maths journey with you, treat with care (Image Courtesy of

Functional Skills qualifications map onto the Adult Core Curriculum areas within English and Maths (The maths one can be found here for download) where differentiated levels exist from Entry Level 1 to Level 2. The majority of students within an FE college will be working towards Level 1 or 2 as a condition of their funding, however adult based learning centres and other providers may offer entry level qualifications to encourage adult learners to address embedded issues within different subject areas and build confidence in these skills.

As a manager of this course, it is incredibly important to me that functional skills delivery is not just a "duller and dumbed down" GCSE course but rather an exploratory educational experience for learners where confidence within these skills enable learners to pursue their chosen career paths confident in their application of their newfound abilities. As much as we like to teach in this environment, in the FE college environment, you have to build a resilience due to the type of learner you are likely to encounter completing these qualifications. I am going to share with you some great advice that I've learned over my experience of managing and delivering these important qualifications.

1) The worksheet should support the learning, not guide it

Your learners adapt and are constantly responding to things around them, they will need engagement to build a resilience to mathematics delivery from their previous education provider. A great example of this is how you deliver the skills to your learners, start with the basics and ensure security on them (there will be high fliers, so just be sure to challenge them a little more) before advancing onto more complex examples. Once you have built a solid foundation for students to work with, a worksheet could be implemented to encourage students to direct themselves.
I am not a fan of the worksheet (unless it's one I've made myself) but that doesn't mean I don't agree with their usage, if you intend to deliver these skills, I would recommend avoiding them for the first few lessons. From a psychological standpoint, your students have already formed an opinion conditioned from secondary school of what a maths lesson is like, try to show them something a little more inspired.

Those poor trees! Give your students something unique and inspired (Image Courtesy of

2) Examples, Examples, Examples

As you grow and develop as a lecturer, you will be able to grasp onto a variety of real-life situations where the students can apply their functional skills learning, there are some great contextual books available for specific areas to work through but I would consider developing your knowledge from other areas to gain an idea of how you can embed that within your delivery.
Best practice would call for you to observe other colleagues, but let's face it, you are going to struggle with your own time restraints to get this done effectively. Instead, I would think of examples from your own life, I regularly talk to students about having a mobile phone contract (the majority of them do as well) and we discuss all sorts of mathematical ideas (interest rates, discounts, percentages, fractions) which can be scaffolded across a whole lesson, more often then not, I get questions from students about something they aren't sure about, one of my students felt comfortable showing me what their payslip looked like and what it all means, engage them with examples they can relate to and it may help it stick when they leave your class.

3) Scaffold the questions to gain results

A big lengthy question on a certain topic is how they will be assessed in functional skills, the exams are made up of 3 parts to form the overall functional skills picture so we need to consider each part equally to ensure the best result for your learners. The majority of students really struggle with scale drawing tasks and how these relate to something they are likely to see.
Start with the basic skills and then address questions from there, start with a simple calculation and talk about it's importance for working out the next question. An example of this may be working out the cost of a meal out for each person, you may start with 5 friends going to dinner and what they had, you could then discuss the idea of tipping at a certain percentage (extra Equality and Diversity points if you discuss tipping systems in different countries) and then splitting the final bill. React to your students, if they are struggling, go for a smaller example to develop the skills then expand from there. You'll be surprised by the end of the lesson when a student who struggled to work out a percentage can tell you the cost of an evening out and give themselves a budget development lesson to boot. They may think of you when they have to financially manage themselves one day.

How do you expect learners to step into a maths problem without the proper skillset to hand? (Image Courtesy of

4) You will need to develop learners English skills

English within functional skills Maths exams is vital for ensuring learners are able to access the material that is presented to them. Some questions rely on students to pick information out of tables which are complex to gain an insight into something which they may have never heard about before. Some of my students struggled with working out the running costs of a washing machine, naturally, they've probably never thought about how they work or that it costs a certain percentage of a water or electricity bill so the more you can get them developing their English skills the better.
Your students will need to remember to read the question fully before attempting it. Some students read it, then straight away jump to "I don't know" like a safety blanket, it's what they are used to doing so you need to show some restraint and allow them to talk out their thoughts about the question. I ask questions such as "What is the situation about", "What would you do in that situation yourself", "What methods could we use here". The students we work with won't attempt it in fear of being wrong, but it is the building of resilience to try mathematical methods that will help them when they leave functional skills behind and step into the workplace for potentially the first time.

5) Finally, Praise positive efforts and encourage methods over answers

How many of your students say "Is this right?" and look for validation of whether the final answer is correct? How many check their work before asking for advice? What proportion of your students need re-assurance that they are doing the right thing before even attempting it?
The majority of functional skills students in an FE college will struggle to try in fear of being wrong, it is human nature to think that we want to be seen in the most positive way possible and our own self-image is important to our peers. I have students in some classes who won't even try because they are afraid of getting it wrong, and if they get it wrong, they get angry and the usual rhetoric appears
"I've always been bad at this" "I'm going to give up" "I don't need this anyway"
My advice, never tell a student if they are correct, instead ask this question "explain how you did it", not only does this apply the student to consider their method to gain maximum marks, but it also reinforces their skills within maths to develop their learning. As education providers, we all know that if you can explain something to someone else, it strengthens your understanding of the material itself, so get your students to teach you. Have a bit of fun with it, I say the phrase "Explain like I'm five" to get through their explanation of it, you can also expand this to popular characters "Explain it to Homer Simpson anybody?"

Give your students reason to feel good, and don't forget to laugh sometimes too (Image Courtesy of

I hope you've gained something from this long blog post about functional skills, I would love to hear others opinions on what they do in their functional skills classrooms to encourage learning of these core skills. Please leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter (@feguidebook) with more suggestions as well as ideas for other areas you would like to see covered in future posts.

Enjoy your weekend teachers, and if none of your students have said to you already, I hope you've had an enjoyable Easter Break!

- Matt

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Working with Parents in FE, what works?

There's a growing consensus in Further Education that we must enable our students to become adults, in charge of their own paths to learning and developing their enthusiasm for lifelong learning within the current educational system. In theory this works, with a lot of students working towards gaining qualifications that will help them within the working world. We need to be careful however, as with the demand for students to complete compulsory aspects of their programme, there will be a shift in the dynamic between the FE lecturer and the student.

With compulsory English and Maths, getting the parents on board with you is of great importance in the early parts of a child's education, this ensures that we can ensure that both sides are "singing from the same hymn sheet" regarding the views of the educational establishment and the parents at home. There will be circumstances which means that this doesn't make much difference to the majority of the behavioural issues that you encounter, however for the majority that want their children to complete their English and Maths, this could be the difference between grade boundaries.

There is a massive caveat here though if the student is 18 or over. According to the Data Protection Act (1998), you will need the consent of the student before you make contact about their education to their parents so make sure you get this first. This could have serious legal implications for your workplace if this is not followed and you should receive Data Protection training regarding this fact.

Be sure to read up on Data Protection information before dealing with parents (image courtesy of

I believe parent-teacher relationships are vitally important to a students learning experience, a prime example is the publication date of this post. As we are in the Easter holidays, it is vitally important for GCSE students to start or to progress within their English or Maths revision, they all need to start somewhere and giving the tools that students will need for their exams to the parents will make our jobs easier, achieve higher success in exams and promote a culture of lifelong learning to the students attempting these qualifications.

I am going to propose some actions that you should consider regarding parent involvement to your student's education in compulsory subjects such as Maths or English. As a further education provider, we need to become hubs in our local communities so that people feel confident when they step through the door that they are safe, comfortable and relaxed in learning new skills. The way we develop this is in how we market and promote our establishment to the wider community but I will save that for another blog post.

Parent-Teacher Relationships can bridge the gap in a child's educational journey (image courtesy of
Here are some things that you could do to promote a healthy parent-teacher relationship in your students, no particular order, but feel free to give them a try:

1) Update your parents on your students progress in a different way

How many of you are sick of doing reports? Yeah? Me too. Reports are a funny thing because although they can be useful, usually people (including parents) lose interest in them within a few minutes to give them much thought. I suggest an easier and up to date way of contacting those people to ensure that you are getting them to think about their students journey.
Postcards! Yes Postcards!
A massive change in my students eyes when I realised that I send postcards home to parents for students that do particularly well within their Maths exams, or within their own work. Some students feel empowered by this and it is also a great way to show that you care about your students progress (one of my students shared her postcard to her Facebook friends! Free marketing for your workplace!)

2) Hold a parents evening near the start of the year

This is important because I believe that if you had a parents evening near the start of the year then you can introduce yourself, show the qualification that their children are working towards (not many parents know what a functional skill is) and how they are going to do it. It is also a great opportunity to share access to your own VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) which can be assessed remotely from home.
Although some parents will use this, others may opt for a more personal approach in regards to their own questions regarding their students learning, give your email address out if you must (but only if you are preparing yourself for email bombardment later down the line), a telephone number is preferable, you can usually get things solved much quicker over the phone then through an email thread!

Your engagement with a parent could impact your student's future (image courtesy of

3) Suggest the parents sit their GCSE alongside their child

Not usually conventional, but adult education is huge within further education. There is a growing demand within local communities and colleges should capitalise on the free GCSE English and Maths deal that is currently available.
Some parents will take you up on the offer, it is a great way to ensure that parents are seeing how difficult the syllabus can be as well as giving them an opportunity to socialise, learn and consolidate their own learning of Maths or English.
Why pay for a private tutor, when you can do it yourself? You cannot lose.

4) A phone call goes a long way

Parents who will want contact make themselves known fairly quickly in the academic year. Both negative and positive. The main thing is to treat them as your customers, if you have a rude one, then pass them onto your manager. If you have the pleasure of dealing with co-operative and supportive parents, then the occasional phone call won't hurt.
This doesn't even need to be for a long time, 2 minutes just to update them on their child's progress, the conversation structure should be like this:

a) How their attendance has been.
b) How their application to the subject is.
c) What could be done to improve either of these.

You wouldn't physically have the time to do this with every single student, however for those who are insistent on contact, then it certainly does make a difference to know you've listened to them and respected their wishes.

What are your thoughts on parent-teacher interactions within FE? Do you think we need to be more like a secondary school? What challenges do you face with parents in FE? Leave a comment below, or follow me on Twitter (@feguidebook) for more educational ideas worth sharing

Hope you are all enjoying your holidays!

- Matt