Numeracy stifles creativity: creativity develops maths.

I was struck by a thought a few days ago. It was a thought that linked a 20-year old memory to the tone of voice of a speaker at a conference. The speaker was urgent yet determined, edgy even. The memory was calm and confident. It was the sharp contrast between the two, both of which hung on the same theme – creativity, which made me want to investigate further.

The memory said, ‘the British education is the best in the world for developing creativity’. I don’t remember exactly who’d said that to me, but it was something that rang true at the time. Now it might be that the memory is skewed. It might have been closer to ‘the British education system is the best in the world for creating graduates who are creative’ – I recognize that this is a long way from saying that the British education system is the best in the world for developing creativity in all students. However it is one of those memories that have entered my psyche – I’m part of an education system that is good at creativity.

The speaker was edgy because the future for schools which have been recognized as creative is uncertain. Funding for the main government body (creative partnerships) which funds such schools and programmes (like the Change School Programme and the Enquiry programme) is uncertain. This is partly due to the impending election in the UK and also the effect of a massive national debt on future public spending.

The thought that linked the memory to the speaker made me suddenly realize that we’re struggling to develop creativity in our schools, when in the past (over 20 years ago) we were proud of the creative students we produced. I’d like to point out that these are massive assumptions on my part, but nevertheless it made me want to investigate a little further.

What has changed over the last twenty years? Well the National Curriculum for one. And with it all those strategies, revisions of strategies, the inception of Ofsted and its subsequent changes, SATs and league tables. And all manner of other stuff.

It’s well beyond me to write about what’s gone wrong with the whole of creativity in the whole of the curriculum, but I can make some pointers about maths.

For a start the word numeracy didn’t use to exist. Maths has become about making students numerate – this is a commendable goal, but I wonder if in trying to achieve the targets of making more children achieve a certain level of numeracy we’ve actually taken the fun out of maths. It could certainly be argued that maths teaching in ‘the old days’ was failing many people, but the prescriptive nature of the numeracy strategy has not necessarily achieved the desired results. To find out more I had to read some articles from a book: ‘Teaching and learning early number’ 2nd edition edited by Ian Thompson – I found chapters 1, 3 and 16 the most enlightening.

The NNS (National Numeracy Strategy) in 1999 moved the focus from mathematical application to arithmetic skills. Strategy advice stated that there should be a high proportion of work with the whole class. A significant influence (according to Aubrey and Dormaz 2008) was Chris Woodhead, then chief inspector who wanted to reduce the wide range of attainment by structuring learning tasks on the basis of what children have in common. This actually had the contrary effect – the middle 50% enjoyed an attainment gain of just over 3% (3% being equivalent to about 3 months), the higher achievers made a small improvement, whereas the lowest 10% actually suffered a decline.

Those early years of the NNS were marked by both:

  • considerable disparity in teaching practice across teachers and schools; and
  • concerns of teacher overload, pressure for acquiescence and undue stress that results in a culture of compliance.

It is small wonder that not all schools were able to equally embrace the Excellence and Enjoyment document – a document with a large emphasis on cultivating creativity within children. It’s like someone realised that we were losing our UK creativity edge and their most creative solution was to write it down on lots of pieces of paper (that’s a bit unfair – I do remember there were videos in the Excellence and Enjoyment pack)

It was against this backdrop of ‘pedagogical prescription’ (Alexander 2004 – I love that phrase!) that the government published the Excellence and Enjoyment document. While this document stated that ‘the NLS and NNS, though they are strongly supported, are not statutory… OFSTED will recognise and welcome good practice… Our aim is to encourage all schools to… take control of their curriculum and be innovative.’

This is an interesting quote – it takes a lot of good thinking, hard work and determination to take control of your curriculum and be innovative with it when you’ve spent 10 years not innovating – this applies on the level of the child, the teacher or indeed the whole school

Meanwhile in the very bedrock of creativity, the foundation stage, there has been some disappointing guidance for the development of maths. DFES 2007 emphasised the need for children to learn mathematics through child-initiated activities in their own play. Not only do I consider this to be a bad plan for teaching early maths skills, but also it’s a bad plan for developing creativity – young children need adult support to develop their play – to make it meaningful, evaluate it and sometimes even to initiate it.

And it flies in the face of Anthony and Walshaw (2007) who say: ‘Spontaneous free play (or child initiated play), while potentially rich in mathematics, is not sufficient to provide mathematical experiences for young children.’ In addition, Siraj-Blatchford et al 2002 find that effective early maths gains happen when adults actively teach maths focused small group activities. Thankfully, the Williams review of the maths curriculum recommends direct teaching of mathematical skills and knowledge in meaningful contexts and opportunities for open-ended discussions of solutions, explorations of reasoning and mathematical logic. This sounds to me the kind of approach that will also develop creativity within children.

In fact, Fawcett (2002) argues that children are likely to be creative when they:

  • show curiosity;
  • use ideas and experiences;
  • make new connections through play;
  • evaluate the process.

I would imagine that the reception teacher who takes this approach will have great success in not only developing the creativity of the children, but also in teaching early skills in all areas, including mathematics.

In conclusion, I’m convinced that the imposition of a national numeracy strategy, for all its (sometimes debatable) gains in maths has stifled creativity , even if for the very reason that it has stopped teachers and schools innovating and reduced them to ‘deliverers’ – the post men of the National Curriculum.

My hope is that, with the Williams Review and the new curriculum starting in 2011, both of which have a clear focus on developing creativity, the processes needed to cultivate creativity in children will be the same processes that develop maths.


Fashion and the Illiterati

Creative teaching for the 21st Century


My key learning from this conference can be summed up in these 3 points:


1. Don’t be lazy: be literate.

2. Arts and culture education is important.

3. Change for creativity takes time.


I arrived at the conference at 10 past 10, not quite realising that it was a national thing. My vaguely formed expectations were around the normal conferences and courses put on by Birmingham LA. I suppose I was expecting conversations during the day to linger on the depressing notions of potential cuts in the authority and to hint at rather negative thoughts of what the next few years in Birmingham schools might be like. I should prepare better.


It was a real treat to be given a flavour for the national picture on creativity in English schools; to be invited to subscribe to a new body for creativity (SCNAG) and to speak to colleagues from all over the country.


Don’t be lazy: be literate



The challenge from Ewan McIntosh was to not be illiterate with new technologies. I’ve always prided myself on being able to pick up new technologies with ease but I have to admit to falling within a certain comfort zone over the past couple of years (and that’s partly why I’m writing this post today). I’ve settled with my phone and haven’t changed it for over 4 years now, so completely missing out on the revolution in ‘apps’. I started to blog and then I stopped again. I use Facebook a bit. I thought it would be a good idea to use Twitter, but I never did.



And I’m the ICT co-ordinator at school.



Mind you, it has become more and more difficult to use technology within school. Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible due to restrictions set by the local authority. Youtube was also banned by the LA for a while (but isn’t now). Policy Central runs on the school system taking snapshots of any ‘illicit’ activity (which has included such things as a worksheet on capacity with the word ‘jugs’ on it). While Policy Central doesn’t directly affect the use of new technologies it does take up considerable time to monitor it. Time that could be spent developing use of new stuff instead.


It was especially encouraging to here Ewan talking about the kind of skills that would avoid making ICT gaffs. When he talked about the young lady who had slated her boss on Facebook only to find that her boss could see everything she’d written, he (Ewan) made the point that the young lady should have been taught to keep a learning log at school. The type of log where she might have recorded 2 stars and a wish in a review of how she was getting on. Then she would see the need to write constructively whatever the mode she was writing in.


I liked the bit where he talked about the kind of spaces people communicate in:


    1. Secret spaces (like e-mail and text)


  • Group spaces (like Facebook, Twitter and VLEs)



  • Publishing spaces (like blogs, Youtube and newspapers)



  • Participation spaces (I can’t remember what these were)



  • Performing spaces (can’t remember these either)



  • Data spaces (like that online mapping project)



  • Watching spaces (where you just watch what other people are up to in all the other spaces).



As you can see I’ve still got some words to learn to regain my literacy.


Arts and Culture Education

It’s important – really important. Professer Anne Bamford talked about arts and culture education. I tried to mnd map some of the important facts (see inset).


Some of the key facts included:


  • Fashion is the 2nd biggest industry in the UK.
  • You pay £4.00 for a coffee in a posh coffee house, but only £1.50 for the same coffee in a polystyrene cup on a train. That’s over a 150% mark up because of design.
  • Children who are taught arts and culture have better brains.
  • An Arts-rich 26 year old is 5 times less likely to be dependant on state assistance than a non-arts-rich person of the same age.
  • Schools with an arts rich education have better standards. They have a shared identity and ethos and perform better in the ‘soft measures’ that are increasingly being measured.
  • Teaching arts badly actually stifles creativity. It’s better to not teach arts at all than to pay lip service to it and do it badly – this places the teacher as the person of primary importance.

Change for Creativity Takes Time

It was really encouraging to see schools who are already doing what I’d like us to be doing here at Paganel Primary School.

Well actually I felt really envious initially.

But then, when I discovered that these schools had been working for 8 years on developing creativity I felt really encouraged. Affirmed even. We’re only 18 months into our change school programme. Already we have seen some great things happen although it wouldn’t be fair to see yet that we’ve achieved complete culture change. Ewan McIntosh said that risk-embracing teachers using new technology achieves real social capital. I agree with that – it just takes some time to get there.

With the election to come there may be some unsettled times ahead. With the huge budget deficit there will certainly be some cut backs to face. The lessons that I’ve learned from this conference won’t change – cut backs aren’t going to stop me using Twitter and neither can they stop me talking positively about the benefits of arts and culture education. And me a mathematician too…




Next time…

In my next post I will discuss how the original National Numeracy Strategy devised in 1995 and 1996 under the last Conservative government stifled the creativity of the nation.

Starting in one place

I don’t if there’s a word for an ineffective blogger.


I found it interesting to see a post published way back in 2007 on ReviewSaurus that said ineffective bloggers may post 4 times in a day and then not at all for 5 days: I haven’t written anything since September 2009. Whoops.


Anyway having heard Ewan McIntosh speak at the Creative Partnerships conference yesterday, I have resolved to get back on the blogging bus and keep this thing going. I think one of my problems so far is that I’ve tried to keep more than one blog going at the same time – one for my leadership pathways work, one for my creative partnerships work, another one for the way creative partnerships are working with us here at Paganel Primary School. It’s all too much. I need one place to log stuff, and this here is the place.


It’s a bit like a river. That’s my metaphor of choice. A river can wind in many directions, cut though valleys and meander across plains. But it’s still just one river. The river is my learning about education. At the moment it includes:

  • creativity, particularly the subsets of co-construction and reflection;
  • maths with an emphasis on the MAST programme of which I am a part;
  • ICT as I have a keen interest in the kind of skills that will enable learners to adapt easily to new technologies;
  • leadership – because I believe that many outmoded models of leadership still exist in schools.

Having started in this place I still need to refer to the previous places.


These include my leadership pathways blog, where I tried to reflect some learning from the leadership pathways program, my creative partnerships blog, begun in 2008 when we (Paganel Primary School) begin our interaction with the Creative Partnerships organisations as a ‘Change School’ and my change Paganel blog which began as an exercise in sharing information between creative partners of Paganel Primary School and never really got off the ground.

Another principle of effective blogging (according to ReviewSaurus) is that you write in a niche. I suppose my niche is reasonably broad at the moment – creativity, maths, ICT and leadership in education, but at least it starts in one place. I’m looking forward to seeing the map of the river unfold.