Whole College Approach effective in improving maths learning, research project finds

Findings from the pilot year of a programme taking a Whole College Approach (WCA) to improving maths learning indicate that it is an effective means of supporting colleges to improve student attendance and learning experiences. Furthermore, the approach was found to have the potential to bring about sustainable organisational change in the way that colleges organise and manage students’ maths learning.

Delivered in four phases – discovery, planning, intervention and review – the Whole College Approach pilot involved a process of organisational change through which student learning of maths became a shared responsibility and all staff were actively involved in a collaborative effort to improve students’ understanding of the subject. The project began in April 2021 as a strand of the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) Centres for Excellence in Maths (CfEM) programme, funded by the Department for Education (DfE), and followed the publication of the Nuffield-funded Mathematics in Further Education Colleges (MiFEC) project (Noyes & Dalby 2017–20).

That work evidenced broad agreement from a cross-section of staff in England’s FE colleges about the importance of maths and students with low attainment improving their mathematics skills. However, it also found that students can receive inconsistent messages, explicitly and implicitly, about the need to engage with mathematics; and that combinations of strategic or operational approaches can produce variations in students’ experiences and sometimes hinder their participation or progress.

In the WCA pilot project, which was delivered by the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Research in Mathematics Education (CRME) on behalf of the ETF, three elements were identified as being effective in guiding and supporting colleges through a process of organisational change:

  1. The support and guidance given by each college’s ‘critical friend’ was a key factor in the success. Participating colleges reported that having an external facilitator to work through the self-assessment tasks with them was an important early step. Through meetings with their critical friend, colleges reported that their thinking was challenged. They found the interaction and feedback to be an effective means of support that helped them review and refine their analysis of the problem and develop action plans with more focused and appropriate interventions.
  2. Colleges also agreed that the self-assessment activities were an important element of the programme. The first activity was useful in starting the group thinking about the context in which they were working and its contextual affordances and constraints. This was followed by activities to explore the college culture and use different perspectives to analyse the issues thoroughly. Colleges valued the way these tasks stimulated rich, purposeful discussion about the problems they wanted to address.
  3. Colleges found that the constitution of a cross-college team to collaborate and lead their college WCA was an essential element of the programme. It was important to include representatives from vocational and maths departments, including both managers and teachers, and to secure the active involvement of a senior leader.

Diane Dalby and Andy Noyes of the University of Nottingham, who led the project, said:

“It has been encouraging to see how the WCA programme has helped colleges develop purposeful collaboration between maths and vocational staff and supported the co-design of effective interventions to improve their maths provision. By working across traditional silo-structures and sharing different perspectives, staff have gained a better understanding of the problems and found new ways of tackling key issues such as student motivation and engagement collaboratively.”

Steve Pardoe, Head of Centres for Excellence in Maths at the ETF, said:

“This research project demonstrates that success in FE maths is down to more than just maths teaching. The Whole College Approach has proved to be an effective process for bringing people together from across a college to support improvement processes for maths. In doing so, it has achieved its objectives of translating MiFEC and other related ‘whole organisation’ research into practice; building sector knowledge about WCAs; and developing support mechanisms and producing support material. It has also identified moderating factors that can affect the implementation of the approach, such as college readiness and stability, time pressures and the extra pressure put on staff by the Covid pandemic.”

Case studies of some of the 16 colleges that participated in the project – Harlow College, Leyton Sixth Form College, Stamford College, the Lakes College, Weston College, and Wilberforce Sixth Form College – are available on the ETF website.

For further details of the wider DfE-funded CfEM programme please visit the CfEM resources and evidence hub.