Harlow College: it's all about communication

Carried out under the auspices of the ETF’s Centres for Excellence in Maths programme, the Whole College Approach project examined the effectiveness of such an approach in improving maths learning. At Harlow College, those involved identified communication as the key to success.

Early in their work on a Whole College Approach (WCA), Harlow College identified that one of the key issues to address was student attendance at mathematics sessions – or rather a lack of attendance by some students. As Mark (Head of Maths) explains “If students don’t come to maths sessions, we are unable to support them in improving their grade”.

Harlow College is a medium-sized General Further Education college with around 6,000 students on 16-19 programmes or adult educational programmes. There are two sites, one in Harlow, and the other about 10 miles away at Stansted. Both sites are serviced by one centralised team of seven maths staff and maths lessons are taught in a small suite of dedicated rooms. In 2021/22 there were approximately 700 students enrolled on a mathematics qualification at the college.

When the college commenced the WCA programme, much effort was already going into monitoring attendance and following up on non-attendance. This was time-consuming for staff. The college decided to focus on one vocational area first and brought together a WCA group to explore the issues. In accordance with the principles of WCA, this group included teachers and managers from both the vocational and the mathematics teams.

A key to success was the time spent exploring the issues in open and honest discussions before planning an intervention. Individuals within the WCA group were encouraged to share their own perspectives so everyone could understand the problem better. Mark summarised the outcomes of early meetings as “It became apparent that the main problem was the different perceptions of the maths team compared to the vocational teams”. This difference is not uncommon in colleges where mathematics and vocational teachers are separated by organisational structures and physical locations. The challenge was to use their contrasting views constructively to view the issues from all sides, develop a good, shared understanding of what was happening and create an action plan that would work for everyone.

The collaborative approach proved to be crucial. Over time, a shared understanding developed within the WCA group, and a commitment to working together to improve the situation. Through careful analysis, the group were able to uncover the weak spots in current practices and dig beyond the surface issues to the root problems.

Harlow College designated several members of their mathematics team to vocational areas to become link tutors. Vocational staff reported that this helped them keep up to date and tackle student attendance issues for mathematics. Although attendance was the initial focus, Harlow College realised that they needed to strengthen their communication and collaboration between teams before they could address other concerns. By increasing communication, the college did not only improve their approach to overcoming barriers to student attendance for mathematics, but the collective culture improved too, which places them in a strong position to work collaboratively on any further areas for concern with mathematics.

For further details of the ETF’s Centres for Excellence in Maths programme, please visit the CfEM resources and evidence hub on the ETF website.