Wilberforce College: increasing the visibility of maths – for staff and students

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 Wilberforce College, the important first step was to make the maths team more visible.

Wilberforce Sixth Form College was keen to develop a Whole College Approach (WCA) so that mathematics would become more visible to students across the curriculum. In early discussions stimulated by the WCA self-assessment activities, two clear issues surfaced. One was the separation that students perceived between GCSE maths and the maths they used in vocational sessions. The other was a lack of confidence with maths amongst some vocational teachers. By addressing these issues, the college felt they could expand and enhance mathematics learning opportunities for students.

Wilberforce Sixth Form College is situated in East Hull and services a very deprived community. Many of the students have very low attainment at school and limited aspirations. The college offers a mixture of vocational and A-Level programmes, including Functional Skills GCSE, and A-level courses for maths. In a typical year, the college would have approximately 120 students taking Functional Skills Level 1 and 200 students re-sitting GCSE. There is a centralised model for maths staffing with all lessons taking place in a dedicated area and teachers having their own fully resourced classrooms.

It was clear that maths was being used in many lessons across the college, not just in functional skills and GCSE maths, but students found it difficult to articulate exactly what maths they were using, or why it was important. With several new maths staff and a department that was hidden away in a building on the far side of the campus, resit courses were generally seen as an ‘add-on’ by students.

There was wide enthusiasm for the WCA programme, and the college was able to bring together a staff team to lead their WCA with representation from different courses, disciplines and levels of management. Conversations across departments could sometimes be challenging, despite sharing the same vision, but this encouraged everyone to think differently, which proved to be important. As Stewart (Assistant Principal) explains, discussions with the college’s external ‘critical friends’ also helped them dig deeply and “pushed us to think about the ‘problem’ behind the problem”.

In these discussions it became apparent that other staff were unaware of who the maths team were and therefore rarely communicated with them. The WCA team saw that they first needed to build relationships between the maths team and rest of the staff because these interactions were key to the success of any other plans. Although this was a two-way process, Stewart emphasises the need for maths teachers to redefine their position “As a new team, the maths department had work to do establishing themselves to be able to build relationships across the college and to implement what we hoped”.

Relocating the maths team to a central area was an important practical step in this process that made maths staff more visible. Closer liaison with two specific vocational areas (Beauty and Health) led to discovering opportunities for stronger curriculum links. The college also worked on the visibility of maths in the curriculum by promoting the use of nine Core Skills (maths and English) and supporting vocational lecturers to highlight these in their lessons. This helped vocational staff develop confidence and see math teachers in a new light.

The college recognised the need for a long-term strategy to develop a WCA but realised that in their first year, they needed to keep the project small and manageable. Making the maths team more visible and establishing links to vocational areas were important steps that changed perceptions of maths and maths teachers in the college. By working on these key areas, the college established a strong foundation for further development of an effective WCA.

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.