For this case study, three FE Colleges were interviewed about their experiences of setting up and delivering Core Maths. As with any new course, both successes and challenges have been encountered along the way. Some of the challenges will be familiar to all centres, not just FE Colleges, although the precise nature of the challenges, whether to do with recruitment to Core Maths courses, timetabling of the sessions or teaching and the way in which they have been overcome, may not.  We hope this case study will provide valuable insight and ideas for all centres, but particularly FE Colleges who are currently delivering Core Maths or who are planning to do so in the future. Following a brief description of each college – Exeter College, City and Islington College and East Berkshire College - further generic issues relating to recruitment, student attitudes, timetabling, cross-curricular collaboration, and pedagogy are explored.  The final section of the case studies identifies what is working well in these institutions and may be transferable to other FE colleges teaching Core Maths.

Click to read more about East Berkshire College

East Berkshire College

Click to read more about Exeter College 

Exeter College

Click to read more about City and Islington College 

City and Islington College


In school sixth-forms, students are usually well known to the mathematics department by the time they come to selecting their subjects for A level or AS level. This makes targeted recruitment of students for whom Core Maths would be suitable easier. FE Colleges do not have this same opportunity. In fact staff in the mathematics department often don’t meet their students until they are actually signed up to a particular mathematics course.

At Exeter College, each prospective student is interviewed by a teacher from one of their chosen subjects prior to being offered a place at the College. Needless to say mathematics is not always on their list of options, and even if it is, the mathematics department cannot practically be involved in interviewing every applicant.  As a result, the Core Maths teacher decided to take time to meet with teachers across the college in other faculties in order to raise their awareness and understanding of the course. In particular she focused on what type of students might find Core Maths useful.  She notes that the investment of time in this task was worth the effort as none of the students on the course this year were directly recruited by teachers from the mathematics department.

In terms of the recruitment strategy, while Core Maths is optional for all eligible students, staff at Exeter College primarily target students who aren’t already taking A Level mathematics but who are taking subjects that include a high level of mathematics content. Students come from subject areas such as Business Studies, BTEC Engineering and Psychology. Although there are 31 students on the course (an increase on the 20 who took it last year), uptake for now remains low. This is because Core Maths is not a course that students are familiar with, although this will obviously change over time. According to the Core Maths teacher, students have also often chosen their courses before they’ve done their GCSEs thus making it difficult to change students’ opinions about what they want to do once they have applied to the College. At the college they have found that Informing students about how Core Maths will support the other subjects they are studying is very effective when recruiting students to the course.

When the course was run first at East Berkshire College it was offered to students who had started A level mathematics but who found the course was not right for them. As a result of the perceived complementarity between Core Maths and Business Studies, the course was also made compulsory for Business studies students. This year Core Maths is no longer compulsory for any students. Rather it is open to all students and the College currently has eleven students on the course.

At City and Islington College, for the first year it ran, Core Maths was offered to Medical Science students only, as tutors recognised the importance of mathematics to the course.  Of the 19 students who began the course, 15 have continued into year 13. Four students left the College for various reasons. This year the course has expanded and is now included as an option in the study programme of Computer Science students. In addition it has been made compulsory for Level 3 Environmental Physics students. There are currently a total of 21 students taking Core Maths in year 12.

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Student Response

The Core Maths teacher at East Berkshire College notes that students usually take a very pragmatic approach to selecting their courses. They consider carefully what the benefits will be, particularly if they’re being invited to study a new course. There were two groups of Core Maths students in 2014 when the course first ran. One was made up mainly of students who had dropped out of AS level mathematics. They took up Core Maths instead because not only did it allow them to continue with mathematics, but it was also an opportunity to get valuable UCAS points.  Their response has overall been very positive. Once students have experienced first-hand, content and delivery that is both interesting and engaging, they have become strong advocates of the course.

'Our students are very pragmatic; they consider where they need to invest their effort and what sort of benefit they can get in return. So it was a very healthy investment for them in terms of their time and their effort …… Students saw the benefits of Core Maths immediately. They saw it was easier than A level mathematics and understood why they were doing it.

East Berkshire Core Maths Teacher

The other group of students who took Core Maths in the first year came from Business Studies for whom Core Maths was compulsory. Staff believed that Core Maths complemented the Business Studies programme and would help raise attainment. Even though the course was delivered in the same way to this group, with the same level of enthusiasm, the student response was not as positive as teachers expected. Some students were frustrated that the course was compulsory and it proved challenging to get them to engage with the content. Mostly they did not continue with the course after the first year.

This year at East Berkshire College, Core Maths is not compulsory for any students. While it has been challenging getting students to sign up to Core Maths, those who have opted for the subject are enjoying it.

'I think that once students have decided this is the course for us, the benefits are obvious. They get better at their coursework. They become much responsible as citizens. They analyse things, they become more active.

East Berkshire Core Maths Teacher

At City and Islington College, since only Medical Science students were offered the course in the first year it could be tailored around the requirements of the students, making it a very attractive option for them. The Core Maths teacher also taught on the Medical Science course which enabled strong links and synergy to be established between the two courses. Students responded very positively to Core Maths and were clear in their feedback about the benefits studying it were having on their Medical Science course.

Even though this year, two new teachers are delivering the course who don’t have that contextual knowledge of the vocational programmes students are on, it is still being delivered in a way that seeks to maximise support for these programmes.  Not only is the lead Core Maths teacher mentoring both of the new teachers, the study programme for Core Maths has been rearranged so that modules coincide with what students are learning in their main programmes.

‘For example in their genetics module when they do a Mendelian cross and they do experiments with fruit flies, they have to do a chi-squared test. We time the Core Maths course to coincide with what they’re doing on their course. So they have a workshop on statistics and then it’s linked directly in with their genetics module. Students can instantly see how difficult that would have been without the Core Maths session.'  

City and Islington Core Maths Teacher

Like students at Exeter College, the students at City and Islington have also been pleased when they have been completing their UCAS forms and have been able to include Core Maths.

At Exeter College, the Core Maths teacher notes that a lot of students obviously hadn’t heard of Core Maths before they came to the College. In spite of this most students are very enthusiastic about the course, some more than others.

‘I have one student in my class who did AS maths last year and failed it.  They said to me “this is so much more relevant, this makes so much more sense” which is always a nice thing to hear as a teacher.’

Exeter College Core Maths Teacher

Even though the course is offered to all students at the College, the Engineering, Business and Psychology students in particular can see the relevance to their main courses.  The challenge arises however when students are doing Core Maths not out of interest but because they are looking to fill up hours on their timetable. This typically results in lower attendance and interest. These students require extra support and attention in order to ensure continued commitment to the course throughout the year.  

In terms of applying the learning from Core Maths to their outside life, students at Exeter College are actively encouraged to do this.  For example during the year they were asked to do a project on statistics relating it to something they were interested in. One student is a surfer so looked at the relationship between tide levels and the size of waves.

Anecdotal evidence from the Core Maths teacher at Exeter also suggests that some students are getting more confident in their mathematical ability as a result of studying Core Maths. Students, who perhaps were quieter and less engaged at the start of the year, are gradually getting more confident in contributing to the lessons and presenting their answers.  They are also becoming more confident in their willingness to try something new. The teacher has found that this is not typically the case for students who came in with As or Bs at GCSE. Often they are more confident in their mathematical ability and have less difficulty working through open-ended problems and sharing a rationale for their answers with the whole class.

As with all centres, students may struggle at first with the more practical, problem-solving approach taken in Core Maths classes.  In particular, adapting to the shift in emphasis from the getting the right answer to being able to justify the method used is often a challenge for students. However the Core Maths teacher at Exeter believes it’s not as much as a problem for FE Colleges.  When students start at an FE College, the environment is very different to school. For example, they have more independence and responsibility. With Core Maths, the classes are likely to be smaller than they were used to at GCSE and students are also being taught by someone who is unfamiliar to them.  The fact that Core Maths is different from GCSE mathematics is actually just part of a package of experiences that are very much in contrast to school. 

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For East Berkshire College, the challenge in the first year of delivery was co-ordinating the timetable with that of other programmes so that Core Maths was accessible to any student who wanted to study it.  The college timetable is set up as a grid system, so within that a slot was chosen that worked for most of the students at the college. 

This year however, the position of Core Maths in the timetable was driven by staff availability. This had the effect of making the course less easily accessible to students. Some of them have either had to come to college on an additional day to study Core Maths or have had to stay behind for the timetabled lesson when a lot of their fellow students have gone home. However, now that two new teachers have been recruited, the college will be reverting back to last year’s approach to timetabling from September.

At East Berkshire College Core Maths is timetabled to run alongside the GCSE Maths resit class which staff have found can be an obstacle to recruitment.  Students, if they do not have to do a resit, often prefer to have a free period rather than attend another mathematics lesson.  However, by making Core Maths engaging for those who do attend, teachers have found that word of mouth is spreading and the course is becoming more popular amongst the students in spite of the timetabling challenges.

Exeter College also uses a grid system for timetabling. There are numbered grid slots so students take one subject in each column which builds up to make their timetable. Core Maths operates in the same way as other A level subjects, offered in two slots on the timetable grid. If there are more students taking it next year, the aim will be to expand the number of slots within which Core Maths is offered.  Staff are obviously keen to avoid clashes which prohibit any student from taking Core Maths. The more slots Core Maths is offered in, the less likely this is to happen.

As with other FE Colleges, department buildings at Exeter College are spread over several different sites. Thus even though the timetable may not prohibit them from attending Core Maths, the distance that they need to travel can be a challenge for students. This year BTEC engineering students for example have to travel for 45 minutes to get to their Core Maths lesson in the mathematics department.  Student commitment is such that they still attend. However, the Core Maths teacher is hoping that if enough engineering students can be recruited in the future, the course could be delivered on the site where they’re based.

Staff at City and Islington have not encountered any significant challenges with timetabling this year. Given that Core Maths is on offer to students following particular programmes, Core Maths can more easily be incorporated within their weekly timetable without the restrictions that can come into play when a course is offered more widely across the college. 

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Working With Other Subject Teams

At East Berkshire College the Core Maths teacher and teachers on the Engineering programme share their schemes of work.  There is less flexibility within engineering in terms of when and how they cover topics. However, this is not a problem for the Core Maths team who have greater scope to change things around so that they cover topics at a time that is most beneficial to students. At City and Islington College, the lead Core Maths teacher also teaches on the Medical Science course and the Environmental Physics course where the majority of students come from. He therefore has a clear understanding of what topics it would be useful for them to cover in Core Maths and when.

At Exeter College the Core Maths teacher has made a point of talking to other teachers about any mathematics students struggle with in their lessons.  The aim has been to understand what areas it would it be helpful for their students to cover in Core Maths. 

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Impact On Teaching

Teachers at both City and Islington and East Berkshire College, noted the positive impact that teaching Core Maths has had on their teaching generally.  The Core Maths teacher at East Berkshire College noted that teaching Core Maths is also an advantage when preparing to teach the new GCSEs, which now includes a strong element of problem solving. This can necessitate some additional CPD for many teachers who are not used to teaching problem solving.

I feel that those teachers who have already been exposed to Core Maths are better prepared mentally and they have a good toolkit already which they can develop and amend for teaching GCSE so it’s no longer scary. 

Core Maths Teacher East Berkshire

With a specialism in Physics, teaching Core Maths has given the teacher at City and Islington more of an insight into students’ mathematical abilities. In the past he acknowledges that maybe he had assumed too much in terms of their level of understanding of mathematics.

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It is clear from the interviews with the three FE Colleges, that they have used strategies and approaches in the delivery of Core Maths which could be of use to both those centres who are considering delivering it in the future and those currently delivering Core Maths.

The importance of raising awareness amongst staff in other departments of the benefits of Core Maths can clearly have a positive impact on recruitment, as evidenced by Exeter College. This year all students on the course were recruited by staff from departments other than mathematics, something that would not have been possible, were it not for the effort put in by the Core Maths teacher in raising the profile of the course.

Similarly at Exeter the Advice and Guidance team have responsibility for visiting feeder schools to deliver progression advice. Ensuring they were briefed about Core Maths was also essential to the successful recruitment of students. 

Although for some centres around the country, making the course compulsory for particular cohorts of students has proved effective, this was not the case at East Berkshire College. According to the Core Maths teacher there, making the course compulsory at FE level may not work as it can breed resentment and result in students becoming disengaged. Staff have spent a lot of time and effort countering that. In schools it’s easier to do this as the students operate within a more rule bound culture, whereas students attending FE Colleges are expecting to be making their own choices about what courses they study. The Core Maths teacher believes that getting the marketing of the course right is more powerful than making all students study Core Maths.  At East Berkshire College they rely on a recruitment approach that emphasizes making the course interesting and engaging for the students who have chosen to do it, so that they become advocates for the course, thus generating demand from within the student body.  Their experience demonstrates that if students have a positive experience in the Core Maths classroom, demand will build through word of mouth.

Both City and Islington College and Exeter College emphasise that implementing Core Maths is easier if the course has the support of other staff, particularly the Senior Leadership Team (SLT).  At City and Islington, the Head of the College as well as other senior staff, fully support Core Maths and are clear about the benefits it can offer students. Similarly at Exeter College, the heads of mathematics and science are very keen for the college to deliver Core Maths, as is the head of sixth form. So ensuring that colleagues and SLT have an awareness of Core Maths and understand the benefits to students will lead to more support for the course. This in turn will make it easier to set up and deliver and, as evidenced at Exeter, can facilitate student recruitment. 

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East Berkshire College

East Berkshire College

East Berkshire College is a Further Education college located in the South-east of England. It has faculties in Langley and Windsor, providing over 800 part-time and full-time courses and apprenticeships. The College was judged by Ofsted (2013) to be good. In particular, provision relating to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) was found to be ‘outstanding’. The College offers a range of courses and vocational programmes.

East Berkshire was an Early Adopter of Core Maths and began delivering the course in September 2014. It was originally delivered as a two-year course, but as of September 2015 it is now run as a one year option. As is often the case at FE Colleges, staff found it challenging to retain students on the course for two years.  Many students come to the college for one year only, and a significant number of them make a transition on to apprenticeship courses at the end of their first year.

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Exeter College

Exeter College

Set up in 1970, Exeter College was the first tertiary college in the United Kingdom.  It is located in Exeter in Devon where it provides further education for over ten thousand students. A range of courses are delivered across five sites, including apprenticeships, A levels and the International Baccalaureate, as well as higher education and adult courses. In addition to being judged outstanding by Ofsted in 2014, the College has also won the Times Educational Supplement 'Outstanding Provider of the Year’ award (2012) and BTEC College of the Year (2014).

Exeter College began delivering Core Maths in September 2015. They currently have 31 students most of whom are studying humanities subjects.  The students, who are allocated four hours a week for Core Maths, are divided into two classes, with a different teacher working with each one. Both teachers collaborate closely on the development and delivery of the course.

The course is run over one year, although the initial intention was to run it over two years. At Exeter, students only move on to the second year of a course if they have done well in the first year. Students are assessed at the end of their first year to determine whether they’ve met the requirements for progression. If Core Maths were to be run as a two-year course, students would have to go through a similar assessment process at the end of year 1.  The Core Maths teacher believes that, for now, Core Maths works better as a one year course, at least until the college can identify an appropriate assessment of whether progression is appropriate .  The advantage of running Core Maths as a one-year option this year has been that even students who are in their final year at the College have been able to sign up for it. If in future Exeter College reverts to a more traditional A level linear programme, then consideration would be given to delivering Core Maths as a two-year option. 

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City and Islington College

City and Islington College

Based in the London Borough of Islington, City and Islington College is described as London’s Leading College, and is the only College in London to be judged outstanding on every measure by Ofsted.  The College provides a range of academic and vocational programmes to over eight thousand students. Across all five campuses, there are almost four thousand two hundred full time students and a similar number of part time students.

City and Islington College began delivery of Core Maths in September 2014. It is run as a two-year course to targeted students. In spite of the challenges within FE Colleges that often make it hard to do this (for example high numbers of students on one year programmes) the Core Maths teacher notes that it provides opportunity for exploring each topic in more detail and for spending extra time on the more fun or engaging aspects of the course.  In the first year of delivery, Core Maths was taught by a physics teacher. From September 2015, two GCSE mathematics teachers are also teaching the course.  Students receive one two-hour lesson a week. 

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