I’ve made it through my first half term as a teacher, that’s six whole, tiring weeks, which means I think I’m now qualified to say that I LOVE IT. Well, not qualified since I’m still an unqualified teacher, but justified at least. And I do love it. Sure, it’s exhausting and I stay late most nights and I’m often running around like a headless chicken, but no two days are ever the same and it’s far from dull.
So today I want to talk about Functional Skills. Functional Skills (FS) are pre-GCSE level courses usually taken by students who have achieved less than a D grade in their GCSE Maths and/or English. If a student who does not yet have a D or above they will be in a FS class; depending on their initial assessment and how they perform in classes they can be set off on one of five levels of difficulty from Entry 1, 2, 3 on to Level 1, 2. The majority of the students I teach are at Level 1, so the (very rough) equivalent of an F grade GCSE.
FS courses are no longer optional for students who fail their GCSEs – they are now compulsory and enforced by the government – those who fail to get C grades at GCSE, English and maths must be seen to be working towards gaining their GCSE in these subjects by continuing to study them up to the age of 18. Those who get a D grade in their GCSE are placed on GCSE Maths resit courses, but those with an E-U grades take FS instead.
What this essentially means is that FS Maths classes are (on the whole) filled with young people who failed to achieve a C in their GCSE Maths and are now having to study it. They thought that GCSEs would be the end of their torturous education in maths and they’d never have to think about it again… Then they come to college and are forced to sit in a classroom and do it all over again.
FS is the part of my job I probably struggle the most with. I’d never even heard of it until a week before term started. I was being talked through my timetable: the GCSE classes, A-level class on Decision Maths and FS… I’m not going to lie, it was pretty embarrassing having to ask what something that I would be teaching next week actually is. I’m lucky enough that the people I work with are unbelievably kind and not only gave me their schemes of work but also their first couple of lesson plans (along with resources) for me to have a look at. I read up on the OCR teachers handbook and pestered anyone and everyone with a million questions a minute about the course.
The content of the FS course is simple, it really does what it says on the tin – it is a course which ensures you have the mathematical skills required to function in every day situations – and focuses putting maths to use in every day situations such as dealing with money, temperature and measurements. FS is the answer to the inevitable question: ‘When will I ever need maths?’
Given the simple content of the course and that I have a maths (and statistics) degree, it perhaps appears not to add up that it is one of the courses I struggle to teach the most. There are two main reasons I struggle with it:
- The majority of the students have failed maths, “hate” maths and really do NOT want to be there. The students in these lessons can be difficult, they test you.
- Trying to explain maths which (having discussed with my colleagues) is probably a similar level of difficulty to what is taught in primary schools is not as easy as it sounds…
The majority of the students I teach are at Level 1. This means that, provided they pass all their FS exams, the earliest they can resit their GCSE exam is in three years time; and that’s not something that students like hearing. Standard comments come in the form of:
Three more years of maths?! That’s bullshit. We should be resitting our GCSEs this year.
… And the swearing has been toned down here. The painful thing is that I see their point: they want to get out of these maths classes as quickly as possible, once they attain their GCSE they no longer have to be there. The sad truth is that the majority of them would not be able to keep up in a GCSE Maths class and would probably spend just as many years resitting their GCSE Maths as they would if they were to build up to it with a couple of years of FS to build up their knowledge.
Now, as mentioned, the basic level of FS as opposed to making the classes easier to teach can make them more challenging for one simple reason: things that I compute automatically from years of practice I have to be able to explain. An example of this would be summing and finding the difference between positive and negative numbers; while this is something that I can do on autopilot, it takes a different knack explaining something which has become second nature to you. For things I find difficult to explain, I most often take a visual route. In the case of positive and negative numbers I ask students to draw number lines and visualize thermometers.
FS may be my most challenging classes, the ones I’m the most nervous about, the ones I come out of exhausted and wondering if they’d learnt anything, but they are also the ones I probably learn the most from myself. These classes can test my classroom management skills (and my patience), they force me to be imaginative in explaining things that I’d never really considered teaching and every time I leave one of these classes I feel as though I have learned something myself.