After having read through the recent Ofqual publication three times, it does not become easier to break down exactly what the issues are and what the solutions might be. I have been left with the thought. ‘How can I unravel this and set it out in a plain written document that education professionals can understand quickly?’. This is what I came up with…     

The implementation of Reformed Functional Skills qualifications in 2019 led to a significant change to the English/maths criteria. I will speak of my experiences since the reforms were introduced, and of feedback that colleagues have given me. I will also primarily focus on maths and leave English to be unpicked at a later date.   

One of the areas for concern for several years, has been the lack of confidence in teaching maths. In one of my previous roles, many staff were worried that learners would not achieve their full apprenticeship qualifications due to fear of the maths element.  

With a limited number of specialist tutors, and often staff themselves not having secure maths knowledge, it seemed learners were doomed to fail. Often staff would tell me that they were not good at maths and felt uneasy at teaching criteria that were unfamiliar to them. Understandable. I could often feel their stress levels go up during meetings where the word ‘maths’ was mentioned. 

How did we get here?

For many learners, maths is something they do not enjoy and I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase “I hate maths” echoing around the classroom. Having already been through an academic system and not achieved the Grade 4 or higher required for most jobs/apprenticeships, they are forced to continue to study it. This is where in an ideal world a magic wand exists: they are transformed and achieve the heralded grade 4! 

One problem: this is not an ideal world.    

There were some highlights in the maths part of the report for me. The recognition that, “Some students found it difficult to understand the questions in Level 1 and Level 2 papers.” will resonate with colleagues.  In my mind’s eye, they are nodding in agreement reading this statement. It hits the mark. Learners are often bewildered by trying to interpret what the question is asking them to do – at this point let’s remind ourselves this is maths and not an English activity. In their haste to come up with new real world scenarios, the question writers often create convoluted and confusing questions. 

Language problems 

Another key finding which made sense to me is that some learners, “Have experienced issues with the length of the questions, as well as the complexity of the language used.” This part I can relate to having worked with learners for whom English is not their first language. Having taught learners from: Ukraine, Poland, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, we do need to think about these additional factors when writing exam papers. 

Numerous times learners from these and other countries would have real difficulty with the exam questions even though they have displayed strong mathematical abilities. Many terms that we take for granted they are unfamiliar with and some of the scenarios are also confusing. 

For example, the mean (average) in maths has a totally different meaning than if I were being unkind to you. It stretches beyond this to being able to clearly what the word estimate means, before you even get to the concept of rounding up or down. An estimate from a builder is not an exact amount. Explaining this to someone who has limited English would take more time than when teaching a young native English learner whose parent runs a building company. They would know the meaning and likely have real examples of estimates relating to jobs a family member has completed.  

Review summary 

The review has good points. It could have gone further and articulated the fact that the increased level of GCSE material in Reformed Functional Skills maths has made people uptight and now makes it feel slightly less ‘real world’. This point needs to be addressed with an increased focus on staff training and more specialist maths tutors. However, this will only provide part of the fix. Changing attitudes which are ingrained towards maths is much harder and a long-term/generational problem to tackle. So far, in the 5 years it has been around, the reform seems to have done little in the way of dispelling these attitudes.