Functional Skills?

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?’

FS 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Hello world!

Welcome to this shiny new blog! I thought we’d start with some simple facts about my intentions for this blog…

  • I’m a teacher in a College of Further Education – this means that I predominantly work with people over the age of 16. I started this job and my teacher training as of September 2014.
  • I’m starting this blog to encourage myself to think about how I teach and as a way to put it down on paper. I have to be analysing and continuously questioning my acts as a teacher for my qualification so, in creating these ‘diary entries’ I am able to catalogue my experiences for myself and also share them with others.
  • My role title is a ‘Graduate Maths Tutor’. TRANSLATION: I have a degree in maths (some kind of miracle) and I am currently teaching classes of my own, but as of yet am not a fully qualified teacher. Obviously this is pretty rare in itself; why on earth would you trust someone who has zero teaching qualifications to head on into a classroom and teach? That said, I’m doing a teacher training course called a DTLLS (Diploma in Teaching in the Life Long Sector), and I spend my Thursday afternoons sat in a classroom being taught myself.
  • I teach students from many different back grounds at all types of levels. My students study a variety of vocational/skills courses from carpentry to hairdressing and who come to me because they have failed their Maths GCSE and are either re-sitting it next June, or are taking Functional Skills classes this year with the aim of completing their GCSE Maths within the next couple of years. In addition to this I have an A-Level Maths class once a week, and am hoping to be teaching more AS-A2 classes next year.
  • Any names included in this blog (excepting my own) will either be omitted or changed for the sake of privacy. I ask that readers of this blog keep their assumptions private. 

And now a few simple facts about me:

  • I’m Sophia (hello!)
  • I would call myself a feminist and I will fight for equality until I’m blue in the face. I make a very deliberate effort to treat students as equals. I also have a feminist blog which lives on The G-Spot.
  • I think I always secretly knew I’d become a Maths teacher. That said, I’m still surprised I ended up here!
  • I live in the UK. Always have and I imagine I always will. When I discuss the education system, it will probably be in reference to the national curriculum enforced in state schools and colleges across England.
  • I was born in 1993 and am told that makes people feel awfully old.

So there you have it! I’m hoping that I’ll be posting a blog once a week, starting from this week!

Ciao – have a good week!