The Lakes College: maths and vocational learning – interweaving instead of 'bolting on'

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 The Lakes College, interweaving maths across the curriculum was the key to success.

When Lakes College joined the Whole College Approach (WCA) programme, they had already undertaken substantial work to make maths classrooms into stimulating learning environments with posters, maths equipment, and a range of manipulatives. Despite this approach, maths was still viewed by many students as a ‘bolt on’ to their vocational programme. The scenario was typical of FE colleges: students failed to recognise key links between maths and vocational activities; and natural connections were not always utilised to full advantage by staff. For Engineering and Construction students, this was a particular concern.

Lakes College is a medium-sized Further Education College in West Cumbria with approximately 4000 learners. The college is situated on one site in Workington. There is a central maths team made up of seven specialist teachers who provide Functional Skills and GCSE maths across all vocational areas. Large numbers of 16–18-year-olds leave local schools with poor attainment at GCSE and a negative disposition towards maths.

To tackle the problem, a WCA team was formed with representatives from Construction, Engineering, and maths. By sharing their own unique experiences, an extended discussion developed that was vital to understand what needed to be done. Anna (CfEM project lead) explains how these initial stages were a critical point for their WCA since “It was only by taking a step back and examining our wider practices, policies and procedures that we were able to gain an objective view of our maths delivery … and what, if anything, needed to change to ensure that learners saw the value”.

The WCA team agreed to prioritise the development of better curriculum connections and commenced a cycle of informal observations of each other’s lessons. These classroom visits proved to be revealing and inspirational. For example, a member of the maths team was impressed to see students using mathematical formulae in an electrical session and a teacher referring to Pythagoras’ theorem in brickwork. On a return visit, the Heads of Construction and Engineering noted how Pythagoras was both a non-calculator and calculator topic in GCSE maths examinations and reflected on how these practical skills were not being reinforced in their workshops. Despite differences between GCSE maths and vocational sessions, they could all see opportunities to support each other more effectively and became inspired to make more effective connections.

As the observation cycles continued, those involved shared key observations with their curriculum teams. Schemes of learning were adjusted to maximise the opportunities and an interweaving process commenced. Discoveries made during informal observations highlighted new ways of making maths more relevant and meaningful. In addition, students saw their vocational and maths teachers talking together and being comfortable sharing a physical space that normally belonged to only one of them. This reinforced the message that maths is interwoven across the curriculum and not just a ‘bolt-on’ to their study programme.

The college advises others to explore the issues thoroughly in the initial Discovery Phase of the WCA process and avoid ‘cutting corners’. It takes time to develop effective and meaningful connections for students but, as Anna explains, “We have learned that cross-college communication and collaboration on teaching subjects such as maths is not something to be addressed as a small ‘embedding’ research project by one teacher, or an exercise in achieving ‘Ofsted-ready’ paperwork, but rather something that should become the heart and soul of a college’s activity”.

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.