The Review of Vocational Education, written by Baroness Wolf and published in 2011, set out a series of recommendations for an improvement in further education for students aged 16 to 19 (Wolf, 2011). As a direct result of the report, all 16- to 19-year-olds in further education who have not yet achieved a grade C (or 4) in GCSE mathematics and/or English must be enrolled on a specific mathematics or English course to receive funding for their main programme of study.
In 2019, over 180,000 students in further education were entered for GCSE maths because they had not reached a ‘standard pass’ – grade 4 – at secondary school (Joint Council for Qualifications, 2019). Of those entered, only one in five achieved a maths grade 4 (JCQ, 2019). After entering further education wearing a label of failure, students often find themselves in a cycle of resits. Most are only released from this by turning 19, rather than by achieving a pass (Bellamy, 2017). This policy has drawn a large amount of negative attention, and Baroness Wolf believes that the GCSE is not the correct qualification for students to work towards in further education – it is the maths itself that should be compulsory (Wolf, 2019).
At Grimsby Institute, resits follow the national pattern. However, as part of our research work as one of the 21 Centres for Excellence in Maths, we are focusing on the barriers that students come up against when retaking their maths GCSE and, in particular, the anxieties they face with maths itself. How can we help our students to break through their personal maths wall?
The Cockcroft Report (1982), which is well regarded amongst maths practitioners, addressed the issue of maths-related anxiety. Maths can ‘induce feelings of anxiety and helplessness’ in everyday life (Cockcroft, 1982, p. 7), and it is acknowledged by the authors of the report that many people do not think fondly of their time studying mathematics at school (Cockcroft, 1982).
Sue Wallace describes the four ‘Big Demotivators’ of further education students (Wallace, 2017):
- previous negative experience
- loss of hope.
Our knowledge of resit students echoes these ‘demotivators’ and the Cockcroft Report, with many describing their experience of maths at secondary school negatively, and the feeling of failure that manifests in a loss of hope (Wallace, 2017; Cockcroft, 1982).
The collaboration between educational researchers Sue Johnston-Wilder and Claire Lee examines maths anxiety in detail:
“Many people find it difficult to take part in mathematical learning, to the point that they exhibit phobia or anxiety, or at least avoidance from engaging in any activity that could require mathematical reasoning.”
(Johnston-Wilder and Lee, 2010, p. 1)
Maths anxiety can develop in students who have to perform mathematics tasks in a high-pressure environment (Johnston-Wilder and Lee, 2010). The GCSE resit class is certainly one of these environments, with that all-important grade 4 being heralded as the key to a better future. Johnston-Wilder and Lee suggest that by helping students to develop resilience through a toolkit of techniques, rather than focusing on the negative connotations of anxiety, students will make mathematical progress (Johnston-Wilder and Lee, 2010).
Ten months ago, we created the role of Maths Motivator to work within the maths department as a pastoral member of the team, and we are already seeing pockets of success with our students. We have seen students who have previously struggled to engage with the exam process fully commit to their mock exams, and we are using the evidence from all meetings with students to identify areas for further support with the entire cohort next year.
The Motivator’s role is to act as a carrot rather than a stick, drawing upon research and evidence-based practice, particularly in the vein of the approach of Johnston-Wilder and Lee. The Motivator does this by supporting students with any maths or exam anxieties, enabling them to become self-sufficient and to feel able to confidently enter a maths session, sit an exam or contribute in a lesson. Motivators do not focus on attendance or behaviour (although we hope that improvements in these areas will naturally follow).
Strategies used change from student to student, but they are common in their aim to provide the student with a toolkit that they will be able to employ in further education and beyond – skills for life in the truest sense. We have found that students are receptive to the support – both in a one-to-one environment and in small groups away from their maths lesson.
In the run-up to the summer exams series, the Maths Motivator is running a certificated six-week course, ‘Exam Fit’, for identified students, covering mindfulness, eating well, sleep hygiene and the need for fun – all tools to help with mathematical resilience.
Neither of the two Motivators that we have employed are maths specialists. We felt that it was important that the Motivator was able to empathise with the students with regard to maths anxiety – perhaps this is an area in which maths specialists may be weak. This is something that we would certainly like to look at further.
The role is still in its infancy, but is growing in scope as time progresses. We know that there is not a ‘magic wand’ that will ensure that all resit students reach a grade 4. Any student who makes progress is a success, whether that progress is completing a mock exam without upset or putting up a hand in class. We hope that by removing that label of failure, more students will take the step towards being mathematically resilient.
Bellamy A (2017) Forced GCSE resits in further education colleges. Association of Teachers of Mathematics. Available at: bsrlm.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/BSRLM-CP-37-1-03.pdf (accessed 18 March 2020).
Cockcroft WH (1982) Mathematics Counts: Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Teaching of Mathematics in Schools. London: HMSO.
Johnston-Wilder S and Lee C (2010) Developing Mathematical Resilience. Milton Keynes: Open University.
Joint Council for Qualifications (2019) Main results tables. Available at: jcq.org.uk/examination-results/gcses/2019/main-results-tables (accessed 16 March 2020).
Wallace S (2017) Motivating Unwilling Learners in Further Education: The Key to Improving Behaviour. London: Bloomsbury.
Wolf A (2019) Oral evidence: Adult skills and lifelong learning, HC 22. 23/10/2019. Available at: data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/education-committee/adult-skills-and-lifelong-learning/oral/106643.pdf (accessed 23 January 2020).