Gloucester College is a large Further Education College with four campuses located in the Cotswolds. This case study is based on the experiences of staff and students at the Gloucester campus. In addition to A Levels and GCSEs, the College offers a range of vocational qualifications, basic skills courses and apprenticeships. It is particularly well-known for its outstanding vocational facilities, business and media studies, early years, motor vehicle maintenance and sport. Of the five thousand or so students who attend the College, approximately 700 are eligible to study Core Maths. 


When the course was first run in September 2014, it was made compulsory for ‘Built Environment’ students.  The strategy has however changed this year. Largely this is because staff believe that students who sign-up to Core Maths out of interest, will be more enthusiastic and committed learners. While the current year 13 students are very clear that they enjoy Core Maths, their teacher recognises that the students in year 12 who have signed up for the course this year, of their own accord, are more motivated learners.  

Staff changes meant that there were few opportunities to promote the course and recruit students over the summer. So to compensate a mailshot about Core Maths was sent out in October to all eligible students. It is also anticipated that recruitment for next year will begin at Easter. The College has lots of GCSE re-sit students who continue on to do A levels/AS levels, so they believe it is worth beginning promotional activities as early as possible.

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The Core Maths teacher acknowledges the difficulties that promoting Core Maths to students will entail. Typically students at Gloucester College are very clear about what career path they are on, and know exactly what courses they need to take to realise their ambitions.  Many of them are on vocational courses, and they know that they can get the relevant qualifications for their chosen career by studying just the compulsory subjects. 

They are looking for a good enough occupation that will earn them a decent living and let them lead a happy life.

Head of Maths

It seems also that for students at Gloucester College, as elsewhere, doing more mathematics after GCSE isn’t always an appealing prospect.  They may have already achieved a Grade C at GCSE and are often unwilling to continue with mathematics in any form.

When it comes to maths, they are often very battered. They have so many barriers to learning that actually their C Grade, once they get it, is their Everest.

Head of Maths

In addition, students typically have their offer of a place at university when they enrol at the college.  Therefore they are not attracted by the possibility of earning the additional UCAS points that Core Maths provides. A more practical barrier for some, is that they work part-time, so fitting in an additional course, particularly if it is timetabled for the end of the day, as Core Maths is this year, is challenging.

In terms of recruitment, this means that one of the key priorities is to overcome any barriers that there might be to students seeing the benefit in studying Core Maths. The Head of Maths notes that the ‘attitude and ethos of students towards learning is important’.  This not only means timetabling it in an accessible slot, but also promoting its values to other staff.  At the moment other subject staff do not necessarily understand the benefits of students taking Core Maths. The priority for them is that students concentrate on their vocational programmes.

The mathematics department recognise that there is a job to do in terms of promoting Core Maths to other subject staff. Once they are convinced of it’s value, they will be more likely to see its benefit for their students and to encourage them to take the course. Similarly there are subject areas such as IT, which involve a lot of mathematics for students. The Head of Maths is keen to engage in a dialogue with particular subject staff and explore how Core Maths might support the courses they deliver. 

The Head of Maths has already had some discussions with the manager of the Health and Social Care course about offering Core Maths as an alternative to a GCSE Mathematics re-sit for their students who want to go into nursing, but have a C rather than the required B in GCSE maths.  The Head of Maths recognises that Core Maths would potentially be a more appealing and engaging option for this group of students.

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Although all of the first cohort of students have continued with Core Maths into year 13, their teacher acknowledges that this is most likely due to the compulsory nature of the course. That said, she is optimistic that the retention rates will remain high next year, given that the current cohort of year 12s have independently chosen to study Core Maths.

However, retention in general remains an issue. Many of the students attending Gloucester College are there for only one year, as they are either taking a Level 2 qualification or re-sits. Sometimes they register for a Level 3 course but move on to an apprenticeship after the first year. As a result, retention rates are always likely to be an issue if Core Maths is run as a two-year programme.

It’s not Core Maths that will be the problem, it’s whether or not students are still at the College…… At any point they can exit and sometimes they don’t know until the last minute

Core Maths Teacher

Although one way to address this might be for the College to offer Core Maths to level 3 learners only, i.e. the group most likely to remain at the College as they are on a two year programme. Alternatively they may consider a one-year provision in the future. Delivering Core Maths in one year would fit in more readily with the portfolio of programmes that are already on offer at the College and ensure higher student numbers.

That is the single thing that will help us out the most – if it’s done as a one-year course.

Head of Mathematics

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The Core Maths teacher has developed context specific resources for students taking Core Maths. This was not done wholly in collaboration with colleagues from the Built Environment course as they were dealing with staffing issues. As Core Maths is no longer compulsory for built environment students and is being offered to students across the College, students taking the course will be studying a greater range of subjects. The Core Maths teacher is still committed to the idea of developing context specific resource in consultation with other subject leaders.

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Timetabling Core Maths has been a particular challenge for Gloucester College, where not only are there a high number of students on roll, but there are also an extensive range of courses on offer.

With students coming from a diverse range of departments, finding a time slot that is free for all of them is quite a challenge. Obviously this was easier the first year the course ran, as all the students were on the same programme. They receive two Core Maths lessons each week. This term Core Maths is scheduled for one session at 4pm on a Wednesday afternoon. The approach next year is likely to be one that involves timetabling Core Maths as an enrichment course, in its own dedicated slot, possibly alongside self-directed study.

The tension for the maths team is whether to schedule the Core Maths slots and then see if they get the students or to recruit the students first and then timetable the classes. On balance, they acknowledge that the former is by far the easiest route to take. The only real remaining issue is to do with how many slots to timetable.

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Staff at Gloucester College would encourage other FE Colleges who are intending to deliver Core Maths, to talk to the directors of other programmes. They believe that getting buy-in from other subject staff is essential to the successful recruitment of students to the course. Typically students see themselves as part of the department that their programme of study belongs to, so as IT students or hairdressers etc. If the directors of those departments encourage students to take Core Maths, that is more powerful than someone from the mathematics department promoting it. It also means that there is more chance that it will be seen by students taking Core Maths, as an integral part of their course not an add-on. The maths team at Gloucester College believe the ultimate aim should be for demand to be driven by other departments. 

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