Raising Learner Participation

Springboard Sunderland Trust

Using learner led activities; both outdoor and project based, with learners undertaking a recovery curriculum, our research aimed to develop an element of learner ownership, for their personal learning and their target setting.

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


Springboard is a regional training provider and charity, delivering vocational qualifications alongside maths and English Functional Skills (FS) and GCSEs to learners aged 16+. We work with many unemployed adults and those from disadvantaged backgrounds with multiple barriers to learning. Our aim is to give them the skills they need to get back into either further training or work.

Our aspiration is to support learners to develop a sense of ownership over their learning, so they can track their own progress. We ask learners to consider what steps they need to take each session to improve, what activities would they like to do, and how they might develop their ability to peer assess work? At Springboard we feel that our encouragement of ownership is key to success, helping learners achieve their goals and set their own targets about how to make progress and what they want (and need) to learn. We hope that our emphasis on ownership will increase learners’ motivation because they can see their individual progress and be a part of how they are learning. We hope this will raise learner participation inside and outside of the classroom and can help improve attendance.


At Springboard, our ultimate aim is to help learners achieve in order to move on to further education or employment. For many learners, this includes achieving their maths and English qualifications as well as their chosen vocational qualification.

The focus of our research centred around effective target setting in maths, and an exploration of project-based approaches to maths skills development. We were keen to explore how to include maths in every session, whilst also helping learners become aware that they were learning and developing their maths skills. Additionally, we were keen to explore strategies for teaching maths that supported and raised learner participation.

In previous OTLA research (ETF, 2019), we focused on giving learners more ownership of their English learning. We developed strategies to support learners to track their own progress, helping them focus on what they needed to work on step by step, how they were going to achieve their goals and how these strategies could (hopefully) support them to enjoy and attend their sessions more frequently. Findings from our research suggested that the strategies we put in place were supporting learners to begin to take more responsibility for their learning and their progress; learners became more aware of where their starting point was, what steps they needed to take each session to improve and the activities they wanted to do in order to build their skills. Learners also became more competent in their ability to peer assess, which, in turn, supported their own development. As this approach seemed to be working for the target groups in English, we decided to adopt the same approaches in maths. Our initial findings suggested that learners found target setting easier in maths; learners knew for example whether or not they could do fractions far more clearly than how to improve their writing or how to construct a report or an article. In both maths and English however, tutors could really see a difference in both aptitude and attitude where learners had the opportunity to set their own targets and goals. Achievement rates also improved in both Entry Level English and Level 1 maths.

The success of the strategies we designed during OTLA 6 inspired us to explore our approaches in further detail and in new contexts. We introduced projects and planning activities for learners to do and helped them to explore the maths and English skills they would need in order to compete each project. We also extended our work on ownership of learning and personalised target setting.


Two maths and English tutors decided to trial new approaches with their groups and suggested community-based projects; helping to reduce litter on the local beaches for example. As we offer roll-on, roll-off programmes, we expected learners to be at varying stages in the process. The intention therefore was to begin at the start of each learner’s journey and then re-assess them when the project was finished. We decided to trial the project simultaneously at two different locations. The groups were made up of our (#P4P) Planning for progression course (foundation learners of embedded maths and English who were working within project-based themes). Maths and English specialist tutors got together, alongside vocational tutors and began planning activities and projects that would use lots of maths and English and allow learners to ‘think outside the box’. The teaching team worked together to decide which areas of maths and English would be used, and how, and what skills learners would need to develop in order to complete their activities and projects.

The reason tutors decided to plan the activities and projects outside of the classroom was to try and make learners more aware of their community and the environment. Themes were chosen each month for their #P4P projects that had been mostly topically linked but for this project tutors wanted learners to make links to nature, fitness and wellbeing and how things like pollution and litter affect the community and environment. Some of the activities and projects that the learners were able to take part in are listed below:

  • Leisure and Tourism project: a favourite sport vote (encouraging democracy) with the results being displayed in tally charts and the winning vote being chosen as the outdoor activity. Learners researched venues for the most reasonable deal and factored in an extra percentage for contingency money to encourage and develop maths skills.
  • Develop a food plan: showing how this links to the recommended calories for their body and fitness levels, costing the food and looking for the best place to shop. Using one of the meals within their plan they noted how to make this including equipment to use and the health and safety implications whilst making this.
  • Environment outdoor activity: beach cleaning. This included maths and English via letters to the council about litter and percentages of plastics retrieved or graphs/tally charts of types of rubbish.

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

This project encouraged an increased focus on vocational tutors and English and maths tutors working together to plan employability type curricula and schemes of work, overseen by managers. This was a collaborative teaching approach that aimed to help improve learner engagement because learners could see the relevance of maths and English as an integral part of their everyday functionality. The activity also highlighted the gaps in learners’ maths and English skills, particularly from Level 1 and above and especially for learners who struggle to read for specific detail, required for maths Functional Skills tests.

The project also helped learners improve their skills to be able to establish and choose methods of maths needed in order to be able to plan the activities and do a RAG rating system of how competent they were in that part of the application of their knowledge. It also helped tutors to see the skills gap in the level of their learners maths and English, which was not always identified in the diagnostic assessments. Vocational tutors were able to use this information to plan further discrete sessions. In the past, vocational tutors had used learners’ diagnostic results for maths and English to complete a skills scan on the support needed for their subject area. For example, a Level 1 childcare learner who had Entry Level 3 English would need more support overall with writing and sequencing longer paragraphs to complete assignments. Since collaborating on the project, vocational tutors have offered more in-depth support such as, how to spell specific words and how to use full stop and capital letters and would ask learners to proof-read their work.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Since collaborating on the #P4P project maths and English has been embedded as part as the same session and each session on a particular theme taught by both the vocational and maths and English specialist staff. Maths and English has also been trialled as a combined subject by one tutor.

Learners learnt how to plan activities around topical themes such as mental health, healthy living, democracy within sport etc. linking these activities, where possible outside the classroom. Recently, Springboard tutors have joined forces with YouthCaN (https://www.youthcan.net/). They are a growing network of youth clubs, classes and community groups who share an interest in studying and protecting the environment. These groups are youth-directed. They coordinate local hikes, explorations of the environment, investigations of environmental topics and share these explorations through online YouthCaN forums and at local and international conferences and workshops.

As the next step in the project we planned learner involvement in setting up local gatherings to share their project experience so far and to speak to other youths in their local communities. Learners are very eager and keen to speak to other youths in their local community but due to COVID-19 this has not begun yet. It is set to start early July 2021 once all restrictions have been lifted. This is a big shift in organisational practice where the learners are taking the initiative to get involved in wider community issues such as the environment and have set themselves targets with timelines. They have worked with their tutors to plan how maths and English will fit in to each stage. Attendance in these classes have improved by at least 20% since Springboard returned to face-to-face sessions.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Did we meet our overall aims?

The main aims of the project were to help learners move into their chosen vocational course and pass their maths and English. We wanted them to become more confident, more motivated in their maths and English sessions. This was through supporting them to take more ownership of their learning so that they could track their own progress and focus on what they needed to work on step by step. This included how they were going to this and hopefully enjoy and attend sessions more frequently. Ultimately, we hoped they would move into further study or employment via achieving maths and English qualifications as well as their chosen vocation qualification. Of course, like everyone else, COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the project and more work has had to go online. Some of the most disadvantaged learners in this cohort, struggled to access work online, and therefore, are behind on their individual learning plan and have still not taken their Functional Skills tests or assessments as planned. The necessity to move to digital learning for three months meant some of the activities and projects have had to be delayed or not take place. However, we are pleased that attendance to the #P4P classes since returning to face-to-face has been better than in other discrete maths and English/vocational classes. Learners were eager to continue to set their own targets and make links to other projects within their local communities.

Please see below some examples (see more in appendices) from learner journey and case studies based on feedback and reviews

Learner A has continued to develop confidence throughout the project and is keener to gain her maths and English qualification. She is now more self-motivated to complete self-study and has been able to set targets in each session. More recently she has been moved into discreet L2 maths and English classes after displaying the confidence and skills required to complete these classes alongside their vocation.

Learner B, has gained a better understanding of what it means to be healthy mentally as well as physically. She wants to progress into childcare and has been making the links between her vocational studies and the health and fitness module covered during the project.

Learning from this project

Due to COVID-19, the project aims were not all met. Once we had to teach online due to lockdown, there were issues with some learners accessing ICT who were digitally disadvantaged and there were other issues with lack of attendance for each session.

Overall, learners have become more motivated to achieve their goal and most of them have a better understanding how important gaining a maths and English qualification is. More than half of the cohort can now set their own targets and plan projects linked to their maths and English. Over three quarters of the two cohorts moved into their chosen vocation and are on track to achieve their next step in their learner journey.

What went well:

  • Tutors increased adaptability to work remotely and look for alternative ways to engage learners such as live practical sessions
  • Increased collaboration between vocational/maths and English tutors to ensure learners see the connection between their chosen vocation and how maths and English fits in to their course as well as essential skills needed for everyday life
  • Improved attendance of learners at sessions
  • A proportion of learners moving into discreet maths and English sessions where they are taught the maths and English curriculum and not embedded into vocation
  • Increased motivation amongst learners who want to achieve their goal

The lesson learnt for tutors was that this type of teaching has to be face-to face and mostly practically based. Learning online was not fit for purpose for #P4P learners. Research showed over two thirds of learners in FE who come from the poorest families do not have adequate technology and are falling behind their peers. (Fenews.co.uk, 2020). This has meant trying to re-engage those learners who have suffered prolonged gaps in learning online and have fallen behind their peers by offering more 1:1 face to face support to bridge the gap.

It was also realised that too much emphasis was placed upon the sessions being divided equally on maths and English when depending on the topic, it may have been better to teach more maths than English and vice versa.

Vocational tutors further developed their knowledge of maths and English, how to differentiate between levels and what type of work to include in order to support their learners. For example, a level 1 English learner who is studying childcare level 2 will need to be able to write essays of over 500 words and proofread their work for accurate spelling and grammar for their vocational qualification and will need support from their vocational tutor in order to meet this criterion a as at level 1 learners are only expected to write between 250-300 words. Maths and English tutors learnt how hard it was to plan both maths and English differentiated activities into each session. It would have been far easier to plan fewer activities, focusing more on one learning outcome per session.

Even better if:

  • All learners could see the relevance to study maths and English
  • Tutors had been able to follow their scheme of work and do more practical projects
  • More time had been spent on one subject each week depending on the topic so learners could really broaden their knowledge before moving on to the next step in either maths or English
  • More learners had been able to set their own targets without help or prompts and identify skills needed in maths and English to be able to complete tasks.


ETF (2019). Final Report On The OTLA Phase 6 (English) Project – Developing Responsive Teaching Strategies In Supporting Learners To Develop Confidence With English: Available at: https://repository.excellencegateway.org.uk/OTLA_Phase_6_English_-_Springboard_Sunderland.pdf [accessed 26.7.21].

FE News (2020). ‘84% of schools with the poorest children lack devices to ensure their pupils can study at home if self-isolating’ Available at: https://www.fenews.co.uk/home-learning/58536-100000-college-students-still-without-suitable-device-for-learning [accessed 2.7.21].