From education to employment

CENTURY hosts first maths and English FE Conference at Birmingham Metropolitan College

CENTURY and Birmingham Metropolitan College hosted their inaugural FE conference to share best practice focused on improving outcomes for post-16 maths and English learners. Speakers included Chris Nicholls (AoC), Emma Bell (NCETM), Julie Baxter and Jo Swindells (ETF), Scott Hayden (BCoT) and Patrick Dunn (Ufi VocTech Trust), among others.

Christine Edwards, QTLS at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), made an invigorating call to action for the importance of maths and English in the FE sector last week. Edwards cited “shocking statistics” that showed young people coming out of school lack the required grades. “We know that we’ve got a problem” she said, adding that there has been “no real change because the pre 16 education system is not helping to address this balance”.

Edwards was speaking at CENTURY Tech and Birmingham Metropolitan College’s first post-16 maths and English conference. CENTURY Tech hosted the conference already working with over 60 per cent of FE colleges and providers for maths and English, with a vision to help share best practice and support collaboration across the sector. Edwards congratulated the speakers and attendees for recognising the need to share best practice for the benefit of the sector, and praised the “great ideas being shared at this really positive conference”.

The session closed a busy and energising day full of speakers for the 100 attending delegates from across the country. Throughout the day there had been warm receptions and praise for college leaders and practitioners sharing the secrets to their success. Edwards, whose talk was about embracing change positively, also spoke about the importance of how practitioners communicate to learners to build confidence and competence in maths and English – not just for their courses, but as “life skills”.According to the Learning and Work Institute, “around 1 in 6 adults still struggle with reading and writing, and around one in four adults still find maths difficult”.

Dr Fumiko Pescott told the audience that the “true challenge” for online learners sitting exams was confidence, due to the pressure of arriving at the centre to take the exam, particularly if they had previous negative experiences. Dr Pescott explained how she builds her learners’ confidence by ensuring they all do five minutes of maths and English online every day, using text messages to nudge learner engagement.

Dr Fumiko Pescott is the Faculty Manager at Activate Learning, who offer completely online maths and English provision with fantastic results, for remote learners who require that flexibility. Interestingly, Dr Pescott also commented that she found she got to know her online cohorts far more personally than when she was a campus teacher. “I know their 9-to-5 jobs, how many children they have, what they cook for dinner”, because of the extra outreach required to target effective support from behind a screen.

Rowena Tooth, Curriculum Manager for GCSE English, and Rebecca Brownrigg, Curriculum Manager for Functional Skills maths – both from City of Wolverhampton College – presented together on leading cultural change. They shared their impressive and innovative “This is ME!” marketing strategy for maths and English. Their success was clear as they had seen their learner numbers increase by 22 per cent. 

Bradford College’s Head of Adult Skills in English and Maths, Adrian Hutchinson, delivered an engaging presentation about their journey improving English and maths for study programme students. One of the key tenets for Hutchinson was a cultural shift of focus away from overall final grades, and towards progress. Echoing Christine Edwards’ earlier sentiments about sharing ideas, Hutchinson spoke about what he called “the magpie effect”, where practitioners “pick things up in this sector”.

Scott Hayden, Head of Digital Learning at Basingstoke College of Technology, gave an invigorating presentation about how we must become “critical consumers” of technology so we can prepare learners to embrace, and become expert users of, AI “in a post-AI world”. Hayden outlined that using AI deliberately, intentionally and mindfully was key to freeing up human time. He also warned of the limitations of some current AI tools, and impressed the importance of seeking peer reviewed sources and citations upon the delegates, adding that we should “think of AI as a personal assistant not a professor”.

Emma Bell, Director for Post-16 GCSE and FSQ at the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCTEM) and the FE CPD Programme Lead at Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) spoke to the delegates about successful CPD. Bell shared her four key messages for effective CPD, which are: that it must be memorable, authentic, focused, and it must acknowledge expertise.

Two speakers from the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) presented on increasing motivation and engagement to improve outcomes. Julie Baxter, National Head of Maths at ETF, encouraged the room to think about how learners feel about their maths and English lessons and how that might affect their behaviours in class. Jo Swindells, National Head of English and ESOL at ETF, shared several visual examples of starter activities to help practitioners build engagement for online or in-person lessons.

Birmingham Metropolitan College’s team presented their strategy for success with maths and English in apprenticeship provision. Amy Ashmore, Head of English, and Ben Gamble, Assistant Principal Quality Improvement and CPD, spoke about how their effective target support has led to fantastic pass rates. Ashmore also explained that they maintain a weekly line of digital communication where they share messages, exam practice, assignments and even YouTube videos “to keep English and maths at the forefront of our apprentices’ minds”.

The day opened with a rousing talk from Chris Nicholls, Area Director at the Association of Colleges (AoC), who spoke about the challenges facing the sector. He said that necessary big decisions were “not going to happen within the next 16 to 18 months because of the political uncertainty” in the buildup to whenever the next election is. “So bring on the election”, he added.

Nicholls also spoke about the “serious issue in terms of recruitment” and retention facing the FE sector for “the first time in 30 years”. When Nicholls himself joined the sector in 1993 he described the conditions, salaries and daily work as “superb” and a college as “a fantastic environment to work in”. However, he cited the “Amazon and Aldi effect” as a key reason for the shift, with employers like web and supermarket giants able to offer better terms and conditions for staff than some roles in the FE sector.

A number of speakers including Chris Nicholls and Christine Edwards made reference to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s ambition for all learners to continue with maths to 18. Though many are broadly supportive of maths until 18, there are significant challenges, such as a lack of extra resources, funds or teachers, as Nicholls identified. Edwards also warned of the knock on effects of “funnelling” the best maths teachers into this project which could leave areas like functional skills behind, or draw maths teachers away from independent training providers (ITPs) and toward colleges.

Patrick Dunn, Project and Partnership Manager from the Ufi VocTech Trust, referenced the Prime Minister’s recent comments advising British people to stop joking about “how rubbish we are” at maths. Dunn said the comment was “in a way, very true” because there are a lot of people who do make that joke. However, Dunn also highlighted that there are a lot of people that the FE sector works with – “the folks who have not been well served” – who do not joke about this, they hide it instead. Dunn delivered an interesting talk on the role of technology in addressing vocational challenges. The Ufi VocTech Trust has also supported CENTURY’s innovative, adaptive initial assessment, Smart IA.

The day also featured a brief welcome by Pat Carvalho, Principal and Chief Executive at Birmingham Metropolitan College, and generous thanks to all the delegates by CENTURY’s Chief Education Officer Tom Thacker on behalf of the hosting team. CENTURY is already planning a follow-up conference for the next academic year. We hope to see you there.

Learn more about CENTURY here.

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