Maths delivery in a time of Covid-19: West Suffolk College’s successful start to 2020–21

Bob Read is the Education and Training Foundation’s (ETF’s) Regional Specialist Lead (RSL) for Maths and English in the eastern region. He works with a range of practitioners who are coping with the daily challenges of teaching maths and English programmes in the context of the current Coronavirus pandemic. In the first of a series of experience-sharing interviews with practitioners working in in FE colleges, ACL provision, independent training providers and offender learning, he talks to Dominic Nice, GCSE Maths Programme Lead at West Suffolk College. The college has enrolled 500 GCSE students this term, together with 600 Functional Skills Maths students working at all levels from Entry 1 to Level 2.

Bob: What kind of delivery model are you using this term?

Dominic: We have split our groups in two so that half the students are in college one week and the other half undertake home study. For example, this morning I had a group of nine students here in this classroom where you can see the tables are spaced out. We tend to use as little paper as possible and work from PowerPoint-based resources where we can. The other half of the group is asked to work from home on an online assignment that they can access through MS Teams. The first half an hour of the face-to-face session is always spent going back over the online assignment as we know not everyone will have spent as much time on it as they should.

Bob: How’s it all going?

Dominic: In many ways better than we dared hope! We decided to take time to walk students through the format of the online assignments here in a classroom setting first which has made a big difference. It meant we could sort out any problems with log-ins etc. The assignments typically consist of a link to a video, a set of PowerPoint slides, etc, and there is always a MS Forms-based quiz which gives us feedback on learner progress and tracks ‘attendance’. The number of quiz responses has been higher than we thought but to be honest we set our expectations quite low given all the well-known challenges that 16–18 learners face in studying at home.

Bob: Tell me more about the quizzes. They seem an important element of your home study offer.

Dominic: Yes, they are. In maths such quizzes can be self-marking which saves times and is a major bonus as I know that my English colleagues face a harder challenge in creating similar tasks that require teachers to read and assess learners’ written work. As a team here at the college we have worked to create a bank of the quizzes based on about ten or twelve questions and we try to include an embedded video tutorial to engage and support learners. We also use the same scheme of work that we have drawn up together. Sharing the workload of creating resources is absolutely vital.

Bob: How useful are the quizzes? Do you feel they have any limitations?

Dominic: We know that we can’t really check how much time students have spent watching the related videos and support material and the quizzes can only really function as a ‘knowledge check’. We know that it’s hard to include the harder, more complex problem-solving tasks that our students find difficult and we can’t see a way round that at the moment. But we were really keen to engage students first in some online learning and so wanted to keep it simple. It’s still early days, but it seems to be working.

Bob: You mentioned you’ve created some tutorial videos yourselves and have created your own YouTube channel. Why do that when there’s so much material already out there?

Dominic: We do have several subscriptions to most of the well-known maths resources banks and I think we make good use of them, but given that our 16–18 learners are desperate to get a Grade 4 we feel that they benefit from a certain type of teaching that recognises that they may struggle to delve too deeply into topics when working alone through online material. The videos tend to be quite procedural, I suppose, but we find that that works. I’ve enjoyed learning to use my Wacom graphics tablet and when I first started to use it to demonstrate a calculation, I just used a PowerPoint slide, but I’d now use the whiteboard built into Teams. Some of my other colleagues on the other hand like to use a visualiser.

Bob: Do you do any live online teaching?

Dominic: Not yet, but we are planning to run some live seminars on MS teams over half term to provide a ‘walking, talking mocks’ experience for students who are sitting the November exams.

Bob: What do you think have been key factors that have helped you put together your blended programme relatively smoothly?

Dominic: As a college we all use MS Teams as the main platform for all subjects. That’s made a big difference. It meant that we had student data to hand when we set up our maths groups. We did spend time over the summer trying to decide whether to use Google Classroom but the ease with which we can access and use student data on Teams made it an easy decision. It hasn’t been the mammoth admin task that we dreaded.

Bob: What has surprised you most about your experience of teaching so differently this term?

Dominic: To be honest it’s how well we have all worked together as a maths team to address the enormous challenge of working in a very different way. We had one or two teething problems at first, of course. But we have a track record of working well together as a maths team and it’s been great to see how that’s continued this term as well.

Bob: And finally, if you could go back to just before the start of term, what would you do differently?

Dominic: I wished we had decided earlier to plan to use MS Teams. During the summer we began to create resources using Google Forms which was fine as it’s a very user-friendly package, but eventually we went with Teams and then had to convert them all to MS Forms-based resources. And we are still trying to establish a more effective way of tracking attendance, given the flexibility we have had to build into the system to allow student to alternate between face to face sessions and home learning.

To find out more about the ETF Regional Specialist Leads and their work please visit the RSLs page on the website. Details of the ETF’s comprehensive range of support for maths and English delivery are available on the programme page.

If you feel you would like to contact Dominic to find out more about West Suffolk College’s delivery model for GCSE maths, please email him at: The YouTube channel mentioned in the interview is the West Suffolk College Maths channel.

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