Grouping for a smooth start in maths and English – what we did and why it all went to hell in a hand cart In my first week as a maths teacher in FE, I was amazed at one thing above all else. There were no registers. At all. Attendance to class in the first weeks (or months in some cases) was recorded by passing a piece of paper round and collecting a list of names. These were then bundled up and handed to a fraught looking manager, who added them to a disordered pile that just screamed “never going to be looked at.” What about safeguarding? What about chasing non-attenders? People shrugged. This was how it was. When the fire alarm went off one day in September I panicked, realising I did not know the procedure. I dashed outside with my list of names, eager to find the spot where they were lining up. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I later discovered they had all gone to McDonalds. The place to be for staff, upon hearing the fire alarm, was apparently Costa.
About a month later, electronic registers magically appeared on my desktop. I could not understand why this did not happen sooner. When I took a job as a section manager, I resolved to ensure that all maths classes had electronic registers from day one. Everyone laughed.
Here is what I did (this paragraph may be of niche interest). I downloaded from the college database at the end of enrolment week a list of all students and what courses they were on. I ran a report of prior maths qualifications and then merged the two lists, eliminating anyone who had achieved a grade 4 or above. We then asked departments to confirm what time they were sending each of their study programmes to English and maths lessons, and I drew up lists of who would be attending at what time and what they had already achieved. I then filtered the students into the appropriate courses and sets, ensured we had enough rooms and teachers, then printed lists of who should be where on the first day. This took an entire week of working in the evening after my children had gone to bed, but it was going to be worth it. They wouldn’t be laughing on Monday when we had registers from day one.
Except they were laughing (albeit good naturedly), because it all went to hell in a hand cart by second lesson. The problem was, things changed fast. One vocational area over-recruited and spilled out into two maths sessions. One area realised they were understaffed when someone quit and had to merge two groups into a single slot. Some students had lied (or forgotten) about their prior qualifications. Construction had their placements changed and moved the days people were attending. And when I stood up in front of 130 students who turned up for maths at second lesson and read the names on my list, about five were there. I had no idea who the others were. I ran around college that day pushing students into rooms like those train conductors in Tokyo with the white gloves, whose job it is to ensure that wherever the passengers end up, it is not lingering on the platform. “Make a list of names,” I announced to the team, through gritted teeth, “and pass it to me at the end of the day.” In other words, we were back at square one.
I am still convinced it does not have to be like this. After all, there was one success story to cheer me up. First lesson, IT. Everyone who came was on the list. Within 10 minutes they were in their maths classrooms learning order of operations. That was because IT stuck to the slot they committed to, and when things changed and they had to change the timetable, they prioritised keeping maths and English lessons as they were.
Part of the problem is the way maths and English are seen within the business context of college. As a department, it does not bring in money (for young learners). It’s just something students have to do, and often don’t want to. Even some of the vocational staff do not always see the point in it. During those early few weeks, when funding will dictate whether the college keeps all its staff next year or not, nobody is that worried about what is happening in lessons that are seen as an adjucnt to the main programme. It’s the complete reversal of what you come to expect in secondary school, where subjects like PE, RE and art complain of being treated as peripheral, and losing their lessons to maths and English “intervention.” However, if the problem is going to be solved (and really, it must be), then change needs to be led from the top. The whole college needs to appreciate that a smooth start in maths and English cannot happen unless everyone is working from the same timetable, and that this is worth trying to achieve. After all, the students don’t go away thinking “that was a mess, but everything else has been well organised.” The just think, “that was a mess.”