Introducing technology for Functional Skills maths and English

Bishop Burton and Riseholme College

This project gave us the opportunity to take a holistic approach to Functional Skills (FS) maths. We developed a blended learning environment that helped to give learners the confidence to risk being wrong, and created a hands up culture where a comfortable classroom allowed deeper thinking and discussion around misconceptions.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.

It makes us happy when learners give a wrong answer!


The purpose of the project was to explore how we might increase engagement and help learners gain wider employability skills, whilst preparing them for their exams and helping them progress to GCSE level with confidence in their maths knowledge.

Whilst both Bishop Burton and Riseholme campuses cater to a wide variety of learners, Riseholme has a strong agricultural presence in the Lincolnshire area and is one of the main destinations for school leavers coming from farming backgrounds: Bishop Burton’s agricultural presence is strong in the apprenticeship sector with learners coming from all aspects of the food industry, from field to fork.

Bloom's Digital Taxonomy

Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy

This project helped to raise confidence in both maths and technology use and develop digital skills to help increase learners’ employability skills as well as prepare them for progression through the FS levels, onto GCSE and (for apprenticeship learners) gain their full qualification and, for some, progress into higher education. Linking maths to the learners’ vocational subjects helped them to see the relevance of the maths and this was very much valued by learners.

We developed highly-effective digital and remote learning approaches that helped to support our learners through the pandemic, giving learners access to learning that would otherwise have not been possible. These remote/ blended approaches also helped learners’ well-being by making them feel part of a community, whereas they may have been cut off and struggling alone otherwise.

To do this, we used:

  • an online learning platform called Century which enabled learners to access ready-made assignments and topics called ‘nuggets’.
  • videos and presentations which aimed to guide learners through their learning journey (Appendix 2)
  • Microsoft Teams (Appendix 3)
  • Microsoft Forms (Appendix 4)
  • worksheets
  • one-to-one Teams meetings
  • on demand, tutorials

We took a holistic approach to ensure that the academic, emotional and mental well-being of our learners was being taken care of during one of the most demanding and unusual years in recent teaching history.

The use of technology increased significantly during lockdown, which created new challenges but also innovative ideas and methods to maintain engagement.
We have monitored and compared two different groups of learners over the last year; apprentices who are all 16+ and working in the food industry (from agriculture to butchers and slaughter men), and general further education learners who are attending full time BTEC courses on agriculture, animal care, equine, health and social care, and cookery to name a few. The FS learners also consisted of foundation learners and so represented a wider learner population. We have all had a steep learning curve but, hopefully, have ended this academic year with more positives than negatives.


There is evidence that embedding maths into a learner’s wider programme of study has a positive impact on learner achievement:

“For learners on the fully-embedded courses, 93 per cent of those with an identified numeracy need achieved a numeracy/maths qualification, compared to 70 per cent for those on nonembedded courses. On the fully embedded courses, 23 per cent more learners achieved numeracy qualifications.”
(Casey et al., 2007:5)

These maths skills are gained in schools and then at college with an emphasis on the importance of Functional Skills maths as a valid and relevant qualification. There is not, however, a consistent embedding of technology and the use of technology within FS maths, despite the fact that most Level 1 and Level 2 FS maths exams are conducted online.

We thought that developing a clear understanding of the use of technology as a part of FS maths learning would not only give learners confidence in their online exams but would, in turn, increase their success rates and add a new employment skill to their repertoire.


Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Full Time BTEC Learners
Prior to the project starting, the country had been in a full lockdown due to the pandemic. During this time, we had used some online approaches but not fully across all our teaching.

During the first lockdown, we used Zoom to communicate within the department and all communication with learners was done via email and post. Learners were attending face-to-face sessions until the second lockdown when they were put into online sessions through Teams according to their timetables.

This change in teaching and learning was to be expected but did not come without its challenges. Digital poverty meant that not all learners had access to laptops or the internet. This was quickly resolved by the IT department loaning laptops to learners and the provision of internet dongles from a mobile phone provider which alleviated those in need.

The second challenge was those learners living in rural areas where broadband coverage was intermittent. This required a different approach to delivery, where learners had access to the same resources and lesson preparation as those that could attend the online sessions. This was done by posting out work with return envelopes. We utilised the class notebook on Microsoft Teams so the notebook contained links to all of the starter assessments and end point assessments, in the form of ‘memory recall tasks’, and ‘how to’ guides to help any self-directed study (Appendix 15 and 18). This was combined with access to support through emails and the chat function in Teams.

The adaptations that were made in the changes outlined above enabled learners to use technology more effectively to access learning online and created a blended learning approach that will to continue to support learners who cannot access face-to-face learning.

The learners still needed to be assessed, so we developed in-class start and end point assessments that could be monitored and reviewed as soon as learners had completed them. The start point assessments consisted of a series of scaffolded questions based on the topic that was being covered in lesson. This helped to identify the gaps in knowledge and identify any misconceptions. In order to have accurate data, a progress check was done at the end of the topic, this was exactly the same as the initial memory recall task but with different numbers so a direct comparison could be made.

The data collected from these formative and summative assessments would prove vital in the centre-assessed grading process. The learners also worked on an online learning platform called Century. This was easy to move from classroom to online as it was accessed via the internet and not a college-owned piece of software.

At the beginning of the second lockdown, online learning had become the ‘normal’ way of teaching. Both tutors and learners became more familiar with the format and engagement was increased even further. Lessons became more fluent and broken down into smaller segments. Various lesson formats were trialled and it was found to work best if a taught session was followed by tutor-led worksheets, consolidated with a topic area on Century. If any learner was still struggling, a one-to-one Teams session was booked.

As an Apprenticeships tutor, when in college I regularly sat in main course lessons to observe the use of maths within the different curriculum areas. This allowed me to understand what the course tutors were teaching and overlay FS in a familiar format to the learner. For example, in Horticulture courses the area of vegetable beds or the volume of paint required for painting wooden decking for seating areas in gardens, which has become a popular alternative to a patio. This was a benefit to both learners and tutors.

The tutors let me have their scheme of learning and the topics to be introduced in advance and I was able to alter worksheets accordingly. This continued through lockdown. The main course tutor and I blended lessons so that FS and the main course become one subject. An example of this was in Horse Care: Learners had to calculate the weight of feed to give a working horse by calculating 2.5% of its body weight. The main course tutor led the session but when the calculations were needed I led the lesson.

For learners to flourish it is vital that they understand that FS maths is used in all aspects of life and that they know how to apply it. FS maths is not just about maths in a maths classroom.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

During the lockdown, most learners who had access to a computer had logged on to Century and engaged with the online learning. This was complemented by the taught sessions. These were arranged via Teams for the usual class times, but it was not always possible for the learners to attend, so an on-demand system was implemented.

All learners were made aware that they just needed to send an email and a one-to-one Teams meeting invite would be sent for a mutually convenient time. As some learners were at work during normal college hours, this included some evening sessions. As these sessions were used to reiterate a maths method, they only usually lasted around 30 minutes. They gave the learner individual attention on a topic that they may have been struggling with and allowed them to ask questions that they may not feel comfortable asking in a group setting.

In terms of group sessions, most learners liked to stay away from the camera and mute themselves when in group sessions. When teaching on a one-to-one basis, I have had 100% of learners using their cameras. Even though not all learners became fully engaged, the class numbers did increase and so did the amount of work produced. Some of the learners still had difficulties accessing suitable IT. This was addressed by the college offering to loan laptops to those in most need. The implementation of this helped improve learner engagement. The online attendance increased by 35% due to it being more accessible to learners who were previously in digital poverty. This, in turn, not only improved topic knowledge but showed learners that they were important. One learner commented on the loan of a laptop;

“Really nice that I’m being trusted to look after it and bring it back and it’s a bit above expectations that it was dropped off at my house!”

Screenshot of annotating using finger touch and a drawing tool

Annotating using finger touch and a drawing tool

Employers whose learner engaged in this benefited and were happy to release the learner for several short sessions each week as this did not affect their businesses.

As it became more apparent that online teaching was to be a long-term necessity, more training for both staff and learners on the use of IT in the classroom was needed to ensure the learners had the best possible learning experience. The college laptop was not suitable for interactive, touchscreen teaching, which was preferable when teaching maths. I was able to borrow some more up-to-date equipment which meant that my screen could be shared and I could annotate the information on the screen using finger touch and a drawing tool.

The feedback from my learners confirmed that they liked this new method more than the flip chart and their comfort with this new style of teaching was also increasing.

Full Time BTEC Learners
The full-time courses have more tutors and so a more prescriptive method of teaching was implemented. Learners were expected to still attend in their normal classroom set times. This was divided between taught sessions and Century sessions. Tutors took different approaches to using the online learning platform; a teacher will introduce a topic, then students will consolidate and build on their knowledge using the associated learning material (which Century calls ‘nuggets’ of learning, e.g. fractions), and some assigning a whole course (e.g. Level 1 Functional Maths).

It became evident that those accessing the whole course were completing tasks that did not necessarily relate to the taught sessions each week, which meant that some learners had to rely on Century to teach them the maths methods. The data collected showed that, although learners did manage to complete the topics, they did not always have a full understanding of how to apply that method in different situations, where in comparison, those who were working on set assignments that consolidated their learning, showed an increase in understanding.

This approach also helped increase engagement and participation and was a benefit to learners’ retention of knowledge.

The final change in approach was to look at learner wellbeing. Lockdown had a negative impact on learners due to feelings of isolation and this often had an impact on focus during lessons. During lessons, learners would discuss how they had not slept properly and were missing their friends and family. They described lockdown as ‘depressing’ and ‘like being grounded’ with other comments describing their college experience ‘we didn’t get a prom and now we’re not even getting a proper college life’. The learners were missing the social contact they had in class and were feeling lonely and unhappy so we shifted the focus to become holistic and address all of the learners’ needs, not just their academic ones.

This shift showed learners that they were cared about and helped to build a stronger tutor/ learner relationship. This resulted in an increase in attendance and participation as well as giving learners a platform to showcase the things they had been doing to keep them busy during lockdown.

One example of this was when learners shared the things that had got them through lockdown. Learners showed pictures of their pets, artwork and stories that they had written which gave a new depth to the knowledge already gained through short intervals in teaching when online (Appendix 5). Another example is when the learners showed signs of screen fatigue so a question was posed to the group – what made you laugh this week? Not maths related but necessary to help the learners focus on the positives in their life. Learners shared stories of dogs stealing dinners, siblings singing badly and parents’ cooking skills (or lack of). This personal sharing helped to solidify the group dynamics even further.

(Case studies are in Appendices 6 -12).

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Microsoft Forms was used to track in class progress. A memory recall activity was given to assess prior knowledge, followed by worked examples, group and individual activities and then a progress check to assess progress made.

The importance of the memory recall and progress checks being similar was so we could accurately monitor start and end-point sub-topic progression. Combined with the whole topic diagnostic and progress test, these assessments of learning gave a holistic view of the learner journey for the academic year.

Learners, in general, made good to excellent progress within the lesson, with over 85% seeing an improvement in their skills. This monitoring of progress showed learners that small steps forward added up to large increases in knowledge. This not only improved confidence but also gave all learners the opportunity to stretch and challenge themselves regardless of their starting point.

Microsoft Forms was also used to deliver Progress Tests to learners during lockdown and to those who were shielding. The comparison between paper-based assessments and online assessments showed almost no difference, with accessibility being positive due to the ‘read aloud’ feature on Microsoft Forms. The only negative opinions were around internet access and not being able to draw or create graphs and charts. This was resolved through multiple choice options.

Comparative data below using Angles in a triangle shows the results of 57 learners’ assessments. Full details can be found in Appendix 14.

The biggest data collection was done through Century, as this was across all learner groups in the college.
A direct comparison of apprentices and BTEC learners shows that their average score was very similar but, in contrast to this, the confidence levels in learners varied on the lower and upper confidence percentiles with a smaller range at medium confidence. This could be due to apprentices using industry-related maths and being able to see the links or it could be due to age and experience.

One example can be seen with the nuggets completed by learner JP, one of the case studies.

JP started his learner journey at Entry Level 1 with high support needs. He was introduced to Century this academic year where his target grade was Entry Level 2. The dashboard above shows his capabilities at Entry Level 1 which gave him a great base knowledge to scaffold towards Entry Level 2. JP took to Century well and his confidence grew. As he saw his scores on completion of each nugget (topic, e.g. addition and subtraction) he wanted to do more.

At the initial start point, Entry Level 2 topics were not available on Century so JP moved to the next available level as a personal stretch and challenge. Below is his Entry Level 3 dashboard. of the case studies.

JP passed his Entry Level 2 Functional maths.

The dashboard collates all the data from the individual learner and sets individual stretch and challenge tasks, identifies strengths and areas for improvement. This data collection does not stop at the dashboard. The tutor can go into each nugget and view every question a learner has completed. Further information can be found in Appendix 16.

Microsoft Forms In Class Performance

Comparison of Start and End Point in Class Assessment

Average scores and confidence levels

Entry Level 1 nuggets completed by learner

Learning from this project

When in college, all learners and staff have access to plentiful resources. Computers can be accessed with free Wi-Fi. Specialist IT staff are on site if any problems occur and all learners have dedicated time within their timetable to attend class. In the beginning of lockdown, IT poverty within the apprentice learner cohort became very apparent. Apprentices were not able to access any bursaries, dongles or laptops due to being classed as working. Some became disengaged because of embarrassment in asking for help or admitting that they did not have the necessary equipment. Whilst this was a Government decision, the college acted and loaned laptops to those in need. It highlighted the importance of recognising that apprentices are part of the college learner body and face the same barriers as 16-19-year olds.

Likewise, not all staff were IT literate and only knew how to achieve the basics that were needed within their job role. This was resolved with focused, comprehensive training on online teaching and learning and the appointment of a digital learning technologist for support. It was also the focus of the college annual teaching and learning conference, with digital upskilling being a priority. Both learners and staff engaged in a steep learning curve. Both parties relied on the help and support of peers. At this stage, main course learners had the option to loan college laptops which gave them an advantage over the apprentice learners. The main upskilling was that staff had to learn to navigate Teams and utilise the applications so a blended learning approach could happen. This had to be cascaded through departments and learners so that everyone felt confident enough to use it for teaching, learning and assessment. Those members of staff who were quick to understand the technology, shared their knowledge with their colleagues and became mentors and problem solvers which showed the community spirit and cross curricular collaboration. This was especially felt at Riseholme where there is one main office shared by most curriculum area tutors. The Teaching and Learning Champion (TLC) went to every available training session and was on hand to support and guide the whole teaching cohort.

Learner engagement improved as the new way of learning became more familiar. Some learners still struggled to focus when not in a traditional classroom, but some actually performed better with no peer pressure or distractions. As tutors, we found new and better ways to deliver our sessions which in turn gave a much better learning experience for the learners.

The new format for teaching apprentices is working well. They are having shorter taught sessions but can access extra help at any time. Both learners and employers like this format as it fits in easily around a working day.

One-to-one Teams meeting from his tractor cab

One-to-one Teams meeting from his tractor cab

Employers that need the apprentice working to fulfil orders, which may potentially keep their businesses afloat, can be resistant to them taking set hours out of the working week for study. An example of this is learner R. He could not attend his timetabled taught session as he had to work. It was arranged that he attend at another time but again had to work and could not spare a full hour. I asked him if he had internet coverage where he works. He told me that he did at one end of a field. He sent me an email from his tractor when he got to the right spot.

I then held a one-to-one Teams meeting with him from his tractor cab. His boss was happy for him to take a small amount of time out of his working day and learner R was happy to be able to gain help on the topic. I followed the session with work set on Century, which learner R completed once he got home from work. Learner R’s employer commented “I can see the benefit of R doing his maths work but at the moment we are too busy to give him the time off he needs. It is fine for him to have a small amount of time, especially if he doesn’t have to leave the farm to do it”. Learner R said, “this way I can keep my boss happy and continue with my learning”. Both acknowledged that without the pandemic they would not be as busy and learner R would be able to spend more time studying.

Towards the end of an apprenticeship the learners have already completed all the taught sessions. Some may have attended the same class more than once. This is the time for self-directed study and revision. The sessions are tutor-led but assistance is only to help when the learner is struggling with maths methods. The learner uses all the notes, worksheets and PowerPoints used to revise before the formal exam. Mock exams are set and timings noted. Any corrections that are needed are addressed in the next session.

Learner R now feels comfortable within both the actual and the virtual classroom and, indeed, is often used as peer support to help the newer or less able learners. He stated; “It’s easier knowing I can get stuff done and still be at work. I don’t have to stress about it and it’s made it better when I see Karen at college because it’s not been ages since I was last in.” While this peer support is predominately used to allow learners to vocalise their skills, by showing others how they address a task, they in turn are revising for that task in the formal exam. This is a positive for the learner for several reasons: the revision which will enable them to pass the exam; the confidence to help others without the fear of humiliation; and the translation to the work-place where the learner can offer help with tasks to other members of their workforce. It also helps the learner feel less conspicuous or nervous when completing the end point assessment as they already feel more comfortable speaking to others and explaining tasks.

Now the learners feel more confident in both their abilities and their confidence, they are more likely to ask for help. There are more emails from learners who would prefer a one to one session to go over a missed/ difficult topic since being in lockdown and this is due to the accessibility of their tutor through technology. Learner T was asked to undertake a spraying task at work. He calculated the chemicals needed. He wanted to check his calculations so asked for help. A short Teams meeting confirmed that he had the correct ratio and volume of chemicals. Learner T was visibly pleased that he had calculated correctly and was able to apply classroom tasks in the workplace.

Top Tips for Engaging Learners Online

Top Tips for Engaging Learners Online

Full Time BTEC Learners
The adaptations that were made in the move to online learning helped to empower and enable learners to participate in online learning and created a blended learning approach that will be continued in order to support learners who cannot access face-to-face learning.

Learners who had not engaged in face-to-face lessons due to a fear of failure began to engage, first through the private message feature on Microsoft Teams, then to the main chat and finally in the face-to-face lessons. This new confidence has not only generated a classroom full of raised hands but has enabled discussions, peer support and a positive learning community. (Case studies of learners JS, JP, CA and MP can be found in appendices 6 -9)

What got me through lockdown

What got me through lockdown

The holistic approach to online teaching considered the learner as a whole person, beyond someone acquiring maths skills, and has resulted in a very positive relationship with learners. In addition, the college is hosting an art exhibition to showcase learner hobbies which is titled ‘What got you through lockdown?’ (Appendix 5).

I think the biggest thing we have learnt throughout this project is that it is not just about the maths. We are all adaptable and resilient, but it helps when we know that we are not alone.

We are thankful that lockdown gave us the opportunity to fully understand that the holistic teaching approaches, such as blended learning, adaptation of resources to suit the classroom as well as online and a close monitoring of student well-being, yields the best results academically and emotionally and that we were capable of not just thinking outside of the box but destroying the box altogether through innovative practice that is student-focused.

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