A greater stretch in mathematics? If only.

I read the letter from Michael Gove to Tim Oates about how the new National Curriculum Review would affect the Programmes of Study within Primary Schools with a great deal of anticipation, and then a growing feeling of disappointment. There are various areas that disappoint me, but the area of maths teaching is perhaps the greatest. I read:

In mathematics there will be additional stretch, with much more challenging content than in the current National Curriculum. We will expect pupils to be more proficient on arithmetic, including knowing number bonds to 20 by Year 2 and times tables up to 12 x 12 by the end of Year 4. The development of written methods – including long multiplication and division – will be given greater emphasis, and pupils will be taught more challenging content using fractions, decimals and negative numbers so that they have a more secure foundation for secondary school.

Minor Disappointments

Let me break this down then. Here are some of the minor points that disappoint me:

  1. Knowing number bonds to 20 by Year 2 – this is already the case. How can it be more stretching to maintain an expectation – surely the bar should be raised somehow.
  2. Times tables up to 12×12 by the end of year – this is a slight rise in expectation as children are currently expected to know up to 10×10, but in my experience it is not the knowing of extra times tables facts that hold back children in the latter part of primary schools, it is the lack of knowledge of corresponding division facts (which happens to be part of the current national curriculum).
  3. Greater emphasis on written methods (like long multiplication and division) – this sounds good, but it’s already in the current programme of study. Just saying something more doesn’t make it more rigorous, nor does it necessarily raise expectations. In addition, I’m all for children learning skills in school such as the skill of performing long division, but I had been under the impression that the new curriculum would be more knowledge based.
  4. Pupils will be taught more challenging content using fractions, decimals and negative numbers. Again, these are all in the current programme of study for children from the age of about 7. Whether children are taught these are up to their teachers and their schools.

So when I read the phrase “much more challenging content“, and put it next to the above examples of challenging content, I’m struggling to see the giant leaps in standards that Michael Gove would be hoping for when his new National Curriculum is implemented.

A medium-sized disappointment

A greater disappointment is to see the phrase “more proficient in arithmetic” without any reference to algebra. As I have written before, children start learning about algebra from a very young age when they start investigating concepts such as larger and smaller. It is the concepts involved in algebra, often linked with precise language teaching, that I think are under-taught or mis-taught at primary level. Teachers shy away from this vocabulary-driven area because it doesn’t feel like maths to them – there aren’t numbers and operations written in children’s books – it doesn’t look as good as arithmetic. When children leave primary school I think they are often under-prepared for algebra – it is in this area that I was hoping for higher expectations within our new National Curriculum.

If you’re good at arithmetic you can go to the shops. Or maybe become an accountant. If you’re good at algebra you can become a rocket scientist. Not that education should just be about gaining a decent job – Gove himself says he wants “a love of education for its own sake” – but I have a feeling that for many algebra isn’t the elegant thing of beauty that I perceive it as, but is a rather lumpy, ugly thing, ringed with fire and tears.

A major disappointment

Aside from my algebra foibles, there is a further disappointment that I think will have a wider implication on maths teaching: teacher subject knowledge. No matter how detailed a Programme of Study or a National Curriculum might be, neither address this problem: we have many teachers within the primary sector who do not have sufficient subject knowledge to teach mathematics effectively. Many primary teachers only have a grade C at GCSE and have had to repeat their mathematics test required by teaching training in order to pass their course.

I have no problem with teachers teaching mathematics concepts that they’re not to sure about, so long as they know what to do when they’re stuck. There should be an expert teacher within each primary school – the maths co-ordinator or similar – who can share their knowledge and expertise when others don’t know the next steps. Too often less-skilled maths teachers don’t seek help from their more experienced colleagues, but struggle with the text of the National Curriculum and any scheme books that support it. Not knowing what to do, they either miss the tricky areas or teach it badly – characterised by repeating themselves more loudly and more slowly, a bit like the traditional Englishman abroad.

It is not a new Curriculum that is going to improve standards in mathematics. We will stretch primary mathematics only by increasing subject knowledge within our teachers.