The impact that action research projects can have on the effectiveness of maths and English teaching to post-16 students has been highlighted in a new report published today (19 May 2020) by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF).

The report of the fifth phase of the Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment (OTLA) programme focuses on six collaborative projects that operated initially in the 2018–19 academic year, and that were extended to March 2020. Each focused on different aspects of post-16 GCSE or functional skills, seeking – via action research – to identify creative solutions to issues including: learners not being able to contextualise their progress in relation to the industry standards of their chosen vocation; ineffective target-setting hindering learners’ understanding of what they must do to progress; and teachers needing support to translate their general understanding of what progress looks like into what it means in a specific subject area.

The ‘Putting the sparkle into maths, English and functional skills delivery’ project aimed to embed functional skills into the vocational curriculum at Dynamic Training, an apprenticeship and bespoke training provider for the health, social care and business sectors. That aim was to be achieved by contextualising functional skills into the curriculum, encouraging more team working across vocational and functional skills, and building a more positive teacher attitude to functional skills. Its impacts have included an increase in the number of staff engaged with functional skills delivery and improved skills, confidence and employability for learners.

The extension of the ‘Creating strategies to overcome poor outcomes in English and maths’ project was led by Waltham Forest Adult Learning and USP (SEEVIC) College. The former explored the extension of SurveyMonkey as a tool to measure learners’ expectations of progressing to employment, while the latter aimed to improve student attendance and engagement with GCSE Maths where it was being re-sat as part of their study programme. The use of SurveyMonkey by Waltham Forest identified both that learners’ improved skills had helped them secure employment and promotions, and that meeting new people during their courses had boosted confidence and wellbeing. USP (SEEVIC) College responded to feedback from its lowest attending students that they didn’t find lessons engaging, by introducing lessons in their immersive learning suite, using augmented reality to put maths problems into context.

Led by DUCHY (Cornwall College) and Petroc, the extension phase of the ‘Promoting a growth mindset and creating a positive lexicon’ project saw the application of the VESPA (Visions, Effort, Systems, Practice, Attitude) Mindset system in order to raise achievement levels of learners in maths and English. Achievement has been driven up using a three-pronged approach that has seen notions of ability challenged by fostering an understanding that effort, hard work, and knowing how to study are the keys to success; understanding that to drive up learner outcomes it is necessary to first work with teachers to build their skills and confidence; and supporting teachers to overcome reluctance to adopt new ways of working.

The ‘Developing learners employability skills’ project saw three providers – Redcar and Cleveland College, WEA North East and Gateshead College – trialling different initiatives to enhance student engagement and drive improvements in attendance and success. At Redcar and Cleveland activity has focused on developing skill exchanges and forging closer links with employers and giving maths and English a higher profile in vocational programmes from induction onwards. WEA North East has also taken an induction-onwards approach, ensuring that learners work with employers from the outset of their courses to develop employability skills and understand expectations. Gateshead College has concentrated its activity on promoting females into gaming and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers, using networking with local employers and work placements to achieve its aim.

The four organisations that took forward the work of the ‘Supporting maths and English delivery on vocational programmes’ project – Warrington and Vale Royal College, City of Liverpool College, Myerscough College and LTE Trading Group (Novus) – further developed the engagement strategies they had developed in the initial year of the project. These included technology-based solutions using apps and virtual reality, building resilience, and the sharing of good practice and joint CPD. The project’s success is evidenced by improved learner engagement, development of joint CPD materials, and the scaffolding of a legacy for the work that has already seen a joint CPD event take place and the establishment of a Teacher Professional Exchange network.

The final project – ‘Utilising new digital technologies to enhance engagement and support’ – saw participants focusing on and further developing different strategies they had developed to improve outcomes in maths and English at their institutions. Leeds City College concentrated on re-engaging learners re-sitting GCSE with English Literature; the Learning Skills Partnership continued work on its Delivery Model project, creating business admin content for its Canvas online learning module; Barnsley College extended its focus on mindset by focusing on student self-evaluation and ownership; and The Sheffield College pursued its focus on innovative teaching and learning using apps and maths challenges. Outputs across the project include improved links between GCSE teachers and vocational staff, the establishment of library book clubs and displays with half-termly cultural capital themes, the creation of homemade ‘book benches’ featuring scenes from learners’ favourite reads, the achievement of best-ever results for maths and English GCSE resits, and the creation of a maths room that enables interaction and collaboration through utilising smart wall paint to enable students to work on the walls around the room.

The projects were overseen by Achievement for All on behalf of the ETF. They were the fifth set of OTLA projects. The full reports on the six projects detailed here, as well as the four that concluded at the end of the 2018–19 academic year, can be found on the ETF's Excellence Gateway portal.

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