Yes, there is still a case for the embedding of English and maths in vocational courses to be the norm.

FE action researcher Elizabeth Walsh-Iheoma reflects on her past research and considers its relevance today.

I recently read, with delight, Robert Broome’s article ‘Contextualising maths and English within vocational learning- reflections from a professional catering teacher’ which I stumbled across on PDNorth’s FETapestry blog. I was excited to read that his action research and reflections highlighted the case for vocational teachers to embed or contextualise the maths and English into the vocational courses.

Nine years ago, I conducted a small-scale evaluation project that confirmed the same; learners performed better when English and maths was embedded into the vocational courses.

The title of my evaluative case study was Is there a case for embedded Language, Literacy and Numeracy provision to be implemented as the norm in vocational courses?’ At the time of writing my evaluation, the concept of embedded English and maths in vocational courses had been brought to the forefront because of the unsatisfactory achievement in English and maths at Level 2. At the time, Lord Leitch’s interim report highlighted that the UK ranked seventeen out of thirty countries with regards to the number of adults in the workforce who did not have the skills needed to succeed in a modern economy. Sir Andrew Foster’s report (2005) stated that there were still too many learners who did not achieve the qualifications they were studying for and that 14% of the workforce had low or no formal qualification. The Skills for Life strategy recognised that many people who have poor literacy and numeracy and who wanted to achieve Level 2 vocational qualifications, were reluctant to attend English and maths classes. It was also recognised that such people’s motivation was enhanced when they could improve their literacy and numeracy skills in context of the vocational programme which is their primary motivation. (Jupp 2005)

The terms maths and English are now used to encapsulate language, literacy and numeracy and I have adopted this terminology for this report.

My evaluative case study focused on the four key questions:

  1. In the areas where embedding is effective-which embedding model is followed?
  2. In less effective areas, what is staff perception of embedded learning?
  3. Is there opportunity for English and maths and vocational tutors to share formally or informally planning?
  4. Do learners prefer to attend separate classes for English and maths? The research issue used both qualitative and quantitative data.

Moving towards an embedded provision was and is still an issue I feel strongly about, and I wanted to document it systematically.

The utilisation of four one-to-one interviews was the main source of data. In addition, sixty student questionnaires and twenty-five staff questionnaires, analysis from external reports relevant to the research issue were also used.

The research was done with a postpositivist approach with regards to collection of data (quantitative) and an interpretative perspective with regards to the meaning of data, the purpose of research and data collection (qualitative) in mind as I wanted to review current practice and understanding of the term embedded learning by looking at the views, experiences and perceptions of individual teachers and students.

I did not want to dwell too much on testing a theory but rather used the theory as a guide. Before collecting the data, I developed a hypothesis that areas that had high success rates also had more elements of embedding. Thus, the data collected for the research question worked towards this theory which was used tacitly.

The results showed that pockets of embedded provision existed in some departments which was more of a result of the collaboration of enthusiastic vocational and English and maths teachers as opposed to college or departmental policy and practice. Features of embeddedness were more prevalent in the vocational areas that had high success rates. Conversely, in the vocational area where success rates were low, a mostly non-embedded model to deliver English and maths was used. Fewer students were in favour of attending separate classes to improve their literacy and numeracy and both vocational and English and maths teachers were willing to commit to teamwork in planning lessons, but timetable constraints prevented this.

The following three recommendations resulted from my evaluative case study, and I believe that these are still relevant today:

Recommendation 1:

Future timetabling should take into consideration the most visible barrier to embedding: time for planning and sharing between vocational teachers and English and maths teachers. All staff who were interviewed or who had completed the questionnaires agreed that formal or informal sharing between vocational and English and maths teachers should take place. This would also help foster a two-way process of staff mentoring.

Recommendation 2:

In addition to staff having time to work together, the continuation of running short formal courses would be one way to ensure that all vocational areas move towards a partly or mostly embedded approach to learning thus the following recommendation is:

These courses should make more explicit what embedded learning entails.  Getting to grips with embedding could perhaps focus more on introducing vocational staff to the core curriculum and the concept of embedding. The Level 3 Introduction to Teaching Literacy and Numeracy could focus more on the practical elements of embedding and should draw out examples of good practice from areas that demonstrate effective embedded provision.  Both courses should provide follow up support to help vocational staff embed maths and English into their courses. Perhaps it could be made compulsory that all functional skills teachers who do not possess a level 5 literacy or numeracy specialist certificate attend these courses to update their skills and knowledge in using the adult core curriculum to help them embed.

Recommendation 3:

Each department to have a named English and maths ‘champion’. For ease and logistical purposes this would preferably be a Functional skills tutor as they are already attached to the departments who would have overall responsibility to check that schemes of work and lesson plans have been mapped to functional skills and the core curriculum.

In areas where embedding was least effective, there was less talk of vocational teachers meeting weekly to plan or any participation in joint activities. The functional skills tutor was left with the task of initiating the process of embedding English and maths into the vocational course. However, ideas of how embedding could occur were those that would offer the least disruption to students doing their practical work.

I believe there is still a case to for embedded English and maths provision to be implemented as the norm in vocational courses. It is recognised that this will need commitment and buy in from senior managers. In the meantime, we need more teachers like Robert to be supported in their professional development to conduct their own research and reflections on embedding English and maths into their vocational courses.

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Elizabeth Walsh-Iheoma

LinkedIn: Elizabeth Walsh-Iheoma
Twitter: @healing_leader

Elizabeth Walsh-Iheoma is an experienced educator and leader in Maths , English and ESOL and has worked in various further education colleges in the UK. She leads with passion and purpose and is a leader who shares her ethics and values with the teams she leads and models how to use diversity constructively.