Updated: Feb 19
In 2018/19, I was lucky enough to be part of an enormously successful FE English and math team.
With national average grade 4+ rates for Post-16 GCSE students currently 27.4% for GCSE English and 17.4% for GCSE maths, the English and maths team at Hartlepool College of Further Education nearly tripled the national average for GCSE maths, made great gains in GCSE English and achieved the best progress for FE colleges in the North East (within the top 5-10% nationally). Functional Skills results also exceeded national averages, as did retention, attendance and achievement.
So, how did we do it?
Delivering a keynote at the Association of College’s English and maths conference on this topic, it’s very tempting to say that outrageously good teaching was the only factor (it was certainly one of the main ingredients). But, this wouldn’t tell the whole story.
After much reflection, the primary factor in achieving the outstanding results was, and is, consistency. As a pre-cursor to the keynote at the AoC Conference, below is additional detail around what we did:
The next time you’re in a whole-college meeting, look around and ask yourself, ‘Does everyone in this room know their responsibilities around English and maths?’
Answer honestly, and if the answer is no, your college has met its first hurdle. Everyone in the building should know their responsibility and accountability for English and maths. This is where the Hartlepool College English and maths strategy came into being.
All relevant staff, including Heads of Department, E&M practitioners, vocational staff with English and maths sessions, learner support; the data/ exams teams and senior leaders were all consulted with before the document was signed off. This harnessed the invaluable input and expertise on offer. And it also made the document as relevant as possible. It didn’t just become another glossy pamphlet gathering dust on a shelf.
The strategy was part statement of intent, part encyclopaedia of college E&M and part accountability contract for all staff. No FE English and maths department can succeed without the support of all staff.
We are all teachers of English and maths.
Attendance and Behaviour
Non-attendance and challenging behaviour remained as key issues. Though used to robust systems from my time in Secondary, I have come to the conclusion that the lack of some of these systems in FE is a good thing. Those systems don’t work for many students who move to FE and by implementing something similar in E&M, we risked further alienating students.
So, what did we do? We redistributed workload, we streamlined and we become more consistent because consistency is powerful. It was interesting to see vocational areas attempting different strategies to address behaviour and attendance.
Though successful, each approach created workload and had variable levels of impact. In collaboration with the Assistant Principal, we drafted a better approach: fluid enough to deal with all students, but rigid enough for all staff consistency. It consisted of 5 stages, as below:
With the new system, English and maths staff took ownership of behaviour and attendance issues in the first instance. Further down the line, I (as Head of English and Maths) took ownership. Vocational staff welcomed the movement of workload and gave English and maths staff a sense of empowerment and ownership.
The remaining questions persisted: what about students at stage 5 ? Would we withdraw students for attendance or behaviour in E&M, even if they performed well on vocational programmes?
Senior leaders supported us throughout. We withdrew students, but only after every step had been exhausted, and with vocational collaboration. Essentially, we gave everyone (and the learners) a chance to turn it around, and opportunities to make the right choices. If they didn’t, they left the college with little choice.
Though workload increased in the short term, behaviour and attendance improved. Those making poor choices realised the consequences. Through regular attendance panels with the AP/ HoD and students, students opened up about safeguarding. It enabled us to support learners who likely would have dropped out anyway.
If we wanted the strategy to succeed, we needed the support of all vocational staff. We consulted and had bi-monthly E&M meetings with vocational leaders. Through these we became aware of the barriers they faced in supporting us and were able to act. We sought their advice on creating resources which were contextually relevant (e.g. if a painting and decorating lecturer was teaching area to students, we sent them the maths teacher’s resources over). And, supported them to seamlessly embed English and maths where naturally occurring. We made and shared resources. The same applied with ratio in hairdressing, punctuation for BTEC Sport students etc.
We regularly showcased our approaches at college-wide good practice events. Subsequently, other areas began to use our resources and practices. We compromised on timetabling and involved vocational areas. We listened to their concerns and took their feedback on-board. They were involved with how English and maths operated. A college-wide philosophy and culture was embedded, and the strategy was adhered to every day.
The strategy was very central to the college. It had more purpose and focus, and other staff felt they could challenge what we did. They knew there would be conversation and debate as opposed to confrontation. The Head of Engineering approached me to let me know we were the first English and maths team to work with vocational staff. This is one of my proudest career moments.
Teaching, learning and assessment
‘All teachers need to improve their practice—not because they are not good enough, but because they can be better’ Dylan Wilian (and Hartlepool’s Principal)
Teaching was of a good standard, but teaching can always be better. We worked together to innovate assessment, cut workload and help students to be as independent as possible. The first step was creating knowledge organisers. These contained basic, key information for each GCSE.
We moved away from traditional assessment, and moved towards short, low stakes quizzing for assessment. We assessed what we had taught and didn’t give students questions they’d never covered before. We printed differentiated tasks on adhesive address labels for students. We left them as challenges, as opposed to feedback. Students completed these at the start of the next lesson. The routine helped them to focus on their areas of strength and development. They practiced their skills.
We shared resources. We built routines into lessons. Students knew what they would be doing, when and how. We engrained consistency into all aspects of teaching, learning and assessment. Students soon understood what role they had to play and became (very slowly, mind) more independent as a result.
We supplemented this with a very tight turnaround on administration. We beat deadlines by weeks, and knew our students inside out as a result. It was difficult. But, once we’d established those routines (and embraced the support of other areas), confidence grew. As a result, the teaching is some of the best I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but staff enjoyed the successes and used the obstacles to become better.
CPD & Networking
Meeting and greeting, asking and bidding for additional funds, visiting colleges across the land and trying to gain insights into how they do what they do, has at times left me feeling like a second-hand car salesman (all fake positivity and handshakes). The reality is that I wasn’t always sure what we were doing was going to work as I wanted it to. I thought it would eventually, but the clock is always ticking for Post-16 students in English and maths.
We started to use Secondary school CPD events, workshops and speakers. With more funding in Secondary, that’s where consultants and experts are drawn. We were invited to help organise the mE+ Conference, an annual conference supporting English and maths practitioners through CPD and workshops. The whole E&M team attended and began to use what they had learned.
Many colleges became critical friends. They looked at what we did, gave critical feedback and shared their experiences. We openly shared data and learnt from each other.
Language and terminology
The simplest, but not easiest, shift was in language. Students have not failed. They haven’t achieved their goal yet. November is not a ‘free go’ or ‘practice exam’. It matters. If you’re not ready, you don’t sit it. It is not a primary programme and English and / or maths. It is a programme of study. We didn’t try and tack on contextualised examples. We were, and are, proud to be English and maths practitioners. What we teach is vital outside of those contexts. Though I’m not privy to every conversation about English and maths, we felt we became more respected as a result. We don’t need to ‘fit in’ with vocational areas – we are English and maths, and we’re proud of what we do.
We did a lot, but we did it together.