Stamford College: two sides of the coin: sorting the system and changing the culture

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 Stamford College, the project became a culture-changing experience.

When Stamford College joined the Whole College Approach (WCA) programme, they were already aware that they had more chance of improving student achievement for maths if they could encourage better student attendance. Maths and vocational staff were diligently collecting data and taking action to address poor attendance but were finding it difficult. There were plenty of data reports available for lecturers and managers, but not necessarily ones that told them what they really wanted to know in a clear and accessible form.

Stamford College is a single-site college within a college group comprising two FE colleges, Stamford and Peterborough. The college has a typical range of vocational programmes for a General FE college, together with an A level programme. Both GCSE and Functional Skills maths are offered. There were approximately 350 GCSE students and 320 students on Functional Skills maths courses in 2021/2022. Maths is taught in a set of dedicated rooms in the English and Maths curriculum hub. The hub is well set up, with a clear image and branding, along with an English and Maths study centre.

The WCA project brought together a project team of staff members from the Level 2 IT programme, the Maths team, a member of the MIS team, the Essential Skills coordinator, and a member of the senior management. The benefits of a specialist data report provided a clear focus for the WCA team to work with, but it was also the starting point for a new and fruitful partnership between vocational, maths and MIS staff. Although the main aim was to sort technical issues, by using a Whole College Approach to the problem, the college was able to develop better understanding and collaboration between vocational and maths departments. Instead of simply finding a solution to a systems problem, there were changes in mindsets and relationships that established a new way of working with wider and longer-lasting benefits.

Maths staff found they needed to have conversations with vocational areas to understand their perspectives and ensure that the data reports delivered the right information about maths for every system user. By talking through proposals and sharing views, everyone became more aware of the different pressures on maths and vocational staff and closer relationships developed. The report was a reason to have conversations, but it also helped remove the defensive culture that can occur between departments in FE colleges. Maths staff, rather than being hidden away in their specialist area, became more visible. Instead of bringing bad news about the perpetual headache of student attendance, they were offering an opportunity to collaborate over a potential solution.

The benefits of this cultural change for future development are clear. As Paula (Project Director, Maths Centre for Excellence) concludes “The WCA team are becoming more confident that both areas now understand each other better and talk, to both resolve difficulties and support the students to achieve their maths resit qualification”. Maths staff at Stamford College realise they will need to keep having meetings and going into other vocational areas so they can continue building relationships but the Whole College Approach programme has been invaluable to get this culture change started. What began as an intervention to sort a systems problem, quickly became a culture-changing experience that the college can now build on to tackle other issues with their maths provision in the future.

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.