Maths Stories

City of Stoke on Trent Sixth Form College

This project identified and addressed aspects of motivation, confidence and attainment in resit learners tackling GCSE Maths.

We created opportunities for students and their parents to tell and reflect on their maths learner journeys. Their stories told how past experiences had, in the main, deeply and negatively affected their motivation, confidence and attainment. The stories and reflections revealed ways in which we could help them to succeed with their maths GCSE re-sit.

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


The original aim of the project was to go into the community and meet the parents/carers of our students on ‘their side of the fence’. This was to form links and hopefully minimise the barrier that our college building can present to some families. However, we had to adapt to the circumstances of this academic year. This report focuses on the reconnaissance aspect of the action research process – exploring the situation in great detail, as the foundation for subsequent responsive activities.

We listened in depth to students’ and their families’ stories of their maths learning. We want to seize and celebrate this opportunity to make post 16 learning of maths safer, supported and successful.


Image of student questions for parents and carers

Image of student questions for parents and carers

For many of our GCSE resit students, attendance at parents’ evenings, home support for attendance issues and assessment feedback discussion with parents is minimal. Many families find sixth form college a daunting environment. Without all around background support for learners, it can be easy for them to lose track and disengage.

Our project focused on interviews, discussions and questionnaires with both students and parents. The themes investigated included students’ feelings about their maths learning and attainment, experiences of online learning, maths ‘legacy’ attitudes and approaches to and preparation for assessments.

In the process of carrying out the discussions we identified key barriers to parental involvement and student progress that will be addressed. We also aimed to identify ways that we could support the students to become more effective in their studies.

“Perhaps the most interesting finding is the fact that the more parents and children talk to each other about meaningful subjects, the better students achieve; home conversation really matters
(Lucas, 2010 pg 3).


Approach image


What shall we ask?

  • Students were asked to generate questions that they thought relevant to their parents’ experience of learning maths.
  • Motivation, achievement, environment and expectation were discussed.
    (Appendix 1)

Parents sent 3 questions

  • Three questions on what they enjoyed, what was helpful and what advice they had for our maths teachers.
    (Appendix 2)

Student interviews

  • In groups of three, students were interviewed with discussions on parental responses to maths learning, students’ own experience of maths learning, strategies for exam preparation and advice for future students and teachers.
    (Appendix 3)

Student home conversations

  • Students had conversations with their families about maths.

Feedback from students

  • Four written questions were put to students about their preparations for assessments, home conversations about maths and thoughts on improvement.
    (Appendix 4)

Feedback to Staff

  • Findings discussed specifically with Maths staff at the college
  • Shared across college with other staff at CPD event

Feedback further afield

  • Findings shared at Sixth Form College Conference
  • Findings shared at ASK Maths lead teachers event Stoke on Trent.

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

Reflective practice and enquiry are embedded in our professional life in the college. Students are regularly asked for their responses in student surveys and questionnaires.

Designing and considering the questions used in our project afforded opportunities for discussions on cultural, religious and socio-economic matters effecting learning in maths.

The students’ lead on the questions discussed gave more direction, relevance and weight to the project.

Three main publications were used in guiding our project:

  • Engaging parents in Raising Achievement: Do they know they matter? (Goodall and Harris, 2007)
  • The impact of parent engagement on learner success: Identifying barriers to learning (Lucas, 2010)
  • A Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety – Insights from the Power of Maths Roundtable.

All student names are anonymised. No other identifiers of individual students are used.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Our planning, scheduling and schemes of work address all the findings of this work. Collaboration with parents is enhanced by progress coach liaison, exam preparation and specific timetabling for such and is already embedded in next year’s scheme of work based on this project.

Meetings with the maths team and across the wider Level 3 foundation1 teachers and support staff will include findings and reflection on this work.
Work has been presented to the Sixth Form College Association national conference 2021.

We lead teachers will be sharing findings at ASK Maths (An opportunity area project across 3 colleges and work-based learner providers in Stoke on Trent/North Staffordshire) college staff and work-based learning tutors and teachers.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

The four main themes of the interviews, discussions and questionnaires can be summarised in these student statements:

Image of the four main themes of the interviews, discussions and questionnaires

Four main themes of the interviews, discussions and questionnaires

When Ellie made the statement that she was “Never gonna get my maths”, she was making it to her classmates and to her sibling: How could she expect to surpass her mother’s achievement in maths? Ellie was capable of achieving a Grade 4 in her GCSE but her crushing lack of confidence permeated every part of her learning in maths.

It’s a powerful statement of intent that she got ready and into her lesson for 8:45am. What didn’t keep her here? About 5 weeks after that statement Ellie left the college and left education. Phone calls to her mother and to Ellie herself to encourage her to stay were fruitless.

Other interviews with students revealed a similar pessimism about the results but they stayed.

From the beginning of the year we encountered the ‘I can’t see it’ (success in maths). This is expressed in various forms from many of our students in resit maths and perhaps represents an even greater call for us to harness the glimmer of hope that gets our students in to the room for a lesson in the first place.

The need for an injection of support, trust and open communication is clear and, in every student, we saw an opportunity to begin helping students move on from feeling a failure.

For example, Mia felt failing maths was inevitable and catastrophic but later in the year she said:

‘I enjoy maths now because I’m not so scared of getting it wrong if that makes sense? Because I’ve already failed it now, I’ve already had that feeling so now it’s like I’m on the road to making things better’’.

Learning from this project

This project, although much altered from its original concept, gave voice to students on their experience of learning. Reflecting on school experiences, home attitudes and teacher relationships gave students opportunities for building rapport, increasing confidence, and guiding practice. Some reflections were particularly relevant and have informed our planning for the next academic year.

Students really engaged with the interviews. They were articulate and willing to share their experiences of maths learning. Their reflections on their own preparation and feelings about learning were insightful.

Half of the replies about preparation for assessments and exams said they didn’t know how to effectively prepare. A quarter of replies said that it was easier to revise for English and other subjects than for maths.

We have changed the structure of our scheme of work to allocate a third of all lessons to address these skill deficits: exam technique e.g., greater use of goal free questions; active revision methods e.g., identifying their own gaps and making targets; exam readiness and techniques to calm and prepare for an exam for anxious students.

A majority of students, who expressed an opinion of online lessons, said it was not effective for them at all. In March we received CPD from MEI ( to quality check and improve our provision of on-line lessons.

Most students went home and had conversations with their parents about their maths. I am going to continue using home conversations, working with students to develop the questions, as a part of our discussion about maths attitudes with my students.

I am also going to offer to go into colleagues’ lessons and do a short session on how we feel about maths.

A small adaptation to the classroom conversations is to use the pronoun ‘we’ rather than ‘you’ when talking about needs, attitudes and even revision techniques.

We can present college maths as different. It is a fresh start, and to acknowledge and accept a differing path and timescale to achieving one’s potential can be an important validation to a student that has had the ‘bottom drop out’.

Getting to know and valuing students as individuals makes a difference. With a small teacher input the reward in attendance and engagement in students can be huge. Our GCSE resit students are receptive to a new approach. Many students mentioned teachers by name who they felt had given them support. The substance of that support was very much that the teacher listened, responded, and cared about their learning in maths.


Lucas, B., (2010) The impact of parent engagement on learner success: a digest of research for teachers and parents. The Centre for Real World Learning, University of Winchester. [online] ResearchGate. Available at:

The Power of Maths Roundtable, date unknown. A Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety. [online] Available at: