Promoting Core Maths: Recruitment of Students
As maths teachers, we normally miss out on the scramble for bums-on-seats that we observe teachers of other subjects going through. Since I have worked as a Core Maths Lead, it has become increasingly evident that knowing how to attract students onto a course is not necessarily all that obvious. In the first year of Core Maths (starting September 2014) some centres found it difficult to recruit enough students to run the course, and many struggled to cobble together a class of ten, let alone the required twenty that we were all aiming for when we applied to become pilots for the new qualification. Timing was frequently cited as an issue – there simply was not sufficient time in summer 2014 to get the message out to Year 11 before they went on study leave. As a result, students did not know what they would have been signing up for. But I sensed that there were other factors at play as well and top of these, I suspect, is that we mathematicians are simply not all that practised at having to promote our courses. With this in mind, I took a long hard look at the way we attempt to recruit students!
I was overjoyed when it was decided to make Core Maths optional: for me, it is crucial that it remains that way. It seems to me that Core Maths above all else requires motivated, free-thinking and enthusiastic students; students who enable tasks to blossom and open up through curiosity and enquiry. I worry that if Core Maths were to become compulsory it would be almost impossible to stay true to its ethos (in my opinion, a tricky class is much easier to manage if the task is repetitive, perfunctory and procedural...the antithesis of what Core Maths is about!) . I was concerned that if we were not successful in recruiting students this year, there might be pressure to make it a compulsory course. We needed to get bums on seats so that, if nothing else, we could set minds at rest that the government targets for 2020 will be reached. This leads to the million dollar question...how best to go about attracting students onto the course?
It would be arrogant of me to suggest I have the answers; I feel I still have much to learn and improve in the way this is done, but with 28 students in Year13 and another 28 in Year12 this year, I am pleased (and relieved) at how the recruitment process has worked at Ivybridge.
Here are my top tips:
- Ensure that the department are aware of the course and that students are having conversations with their own maths teachers about it on a semi-regular basis to build up an awareness of the course. A Year 9 student I am currently teaching mentioned to me that she would consider taking Core Maths when in the sixth form (I was trying to persuade her to consider A level maths as an option). I am not sure how she knew about the course but somehow word has got round.
- Try to talk to classes (and be selective as to which ones) rather than using an assembly as a platform – students need to feel comfortable to ask questions and you can be more interactive when talking to a smaller group of students.
- Get in early in the school year. I visited the Year 11 classes in my college in February, before they had to complete their option forms.
- Talk about their options later on in life, university prospects and a student’s place in the global market. I use Jeremy Hodgen’s 2013 report for The Nuffield Foundation, Towards Universal Participation In Post-16 Maths, in particular this table:
I tell the students the ‘Studying Any Mathematics’ figures for Germany, Hong Kong and Massachusetts and they then try to guess the figures for England. I think this is particularly powerful in making students realise that a lack of mathematics post GCSE would be particularly disadvantageous when competing for university places or jobs with people from other countries.
- I have kept my talk as anecdotal as possible. I think this helped. It was also quite brief (about 10 to 15 minutes). I think this helped too. I started off using a PowerPoint presentation but I quickly realised this was having a negative effect and have found that ‘just having a chat’ has been far more effective. I talk about my own experience of meeting up with a friend in my first term at university who was doing a course that sounded fascinating but, upon enquiring into a transfer, realising I couldn’t because I didn’t have the required A levels.
- At the Year11 transition evening, one of our Year13 Core Maths students attended, to talk to Year11s about the course.
One final point: having taught a very small core maths class in the first year (they were a class of five students for the bulk of the year), I was surprised at how frequently the size of the class has hindered the learning experience (much more so than with a small class of Further Mathematicians for example). The bigger classes offer much more scope and better discussion - reasonable size primary data sets can be collected from them and there is always a point of view regarding the context from which the maths stems which enables the class to explore the context prior to embarking on the mathematical processing. This is very helpful as it's almost always the context and how that relates to the maths that trips the students up, not the mathematical processing itself.
I have been very much looking forwards to teaching Core Maths this year, in part because I have been through the process already and so have a much better idea of what to teach and how to teach it but also because I now have a class that is big enough to really allow the students to take control of their learning in a way that was only partially possible last year.