Fe maths teachers really need to count more

Managing the unprecedented expansion of maths provision in FE that has resulted from the condition of funding is one of the biggest challenges facing colleges today. It is an example of a well-intentioned policy that is threatened by weak strategic design and inadequate national workforce planning.

College leaders have done their best to meet the challenge of recruiting suitable staff, but well-qualified maths teachers are in short supply. Non-maths specialists have been retrained and staff already in post have covered unfilled vacancies. Resourceful colleges have developed multi-faceted recruitment strategies that include enhanced pay schemes, grow-your-own schemes, graduate schemes and internal retraining. These are having some effect, but maths teacher recruitment remains an on-going problem, placing an additional burden on a sector already struggling financially.

The Nuffield Foundation-funded Mathematics in FE Colleges (MiFEC) project is exploring the complex challenges in this critically important area. This summer the MiFEC team surveyed nearly 500 maths teachers in general FE colleges across England. The data points to reasonably good short-term stability in the maths teacher workforce, but the long-term position is less certain. Two thirds of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with their current roles, but the numbers retiring or moving to other employment over the next few years are likely to exceed new entrants.

Despite the tremendous efforts of FE colleges, there is no room for complacency about the supply of maths teachers. There are, however, some grounds for cautious optimism. The survey shows that teaching maths in FE is an attractive career choice or progression opportunity. The reasons are arguably different from pursuing a career teaching maths in school, such as enjoyment of the subject. Less than half of the respondents cited personal enjoyment of maths as one of their reasons to teach the subject. The reasons varied widely, but “wanting to work with 16 to 18-year-olds” or to “move away from school teaching” featured strongly. In a culture where FE is systematically overlooked and the working conditions often portrayed negatively, these positive reasons for choosing FE teaching need wider communication and celebration.

Routes into teaching mathematics in FE differ from a traditional pathway into school teaching. For the survey respondents, the most common pathway was from business, industry or self-employment, but transition from teaching another subject in FE, or from teaching maths in school, were also common. These trajectories involve either a significant career change, a transition between subjects or an adaptation to a new educational environment. These different routes demand targeted training programmes rather than a one-size-fits-all model. Decision-makers, managers, trainers and CPD providers need to pay greater attention to these differences in the composition of the workforce.

FE maths teachers face different challenges to many teachers in secondary schools. In FE there is a strong emphasis on being able to motivate disaffected students and reverse under-achievement in a short time with limited resources. This makes it a peculiarly challenging role. Recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of teachers fit for this task is time-consuming, resource-heavy and has financial implications. The Department for Education’s Centres for Excellence programme should provide welcome support for teachers, but its long-term impact will be reduced unless there is greater stability in the workforce.

To sustain current staffing levels, the sector will need to go beyond what it has already done. If we want better learning experiences for these young people, maths teachers in FE really need to count more – in the sense of increased numbers and public recognition of their value. This means wider positive promotion of the profession and appropriate high-quality initial training to meet their needs.