The coming mathematics apocalypse

I am tremendously excited by the current maths curriculum in English primary schools. The expectations are higher by at least a year. It is a no-nonsense raising of standards.

I’m excited because if we can find a way of teaching the curriculum successfully, then our students will have levels of maths previously unheard of in this country. They will be on top of the mathematical world. The average will be above average. They will have the skills and knowledge to found an empire of learning.

Not only is the curriculum at a standard that is a year higher than the previous curriculum, but there is talk of the floor standards, already raised from 60% to 65%, to be raised further to 80%. This means that schools will have to find a way of getting more of their students to a far higher standard. What a fantastic aspiration.

But it’s the ‘if’ I see as being a problem. Let’s face it: we don’t currently have the maths specialists we need in Years 5 and 6 – the upper years of primary school. Secondary school maths departments complain of misteaching, cramming for the end-of-primary-school SATs and students without the knowledge they need. What will it be like with even higher standards, both on the level that children must attain, and also the number of children that must attain it?

I see three options:

  1. Success – we achieve the ambition. We find a way of teaching more of our children to a higher standards than previously attained. A golden age of knowledge is ushered in.
  2. Cheating – we pretend to achieve the ambition by blurring further the grey line between supporting students and telling them what to do in tests. The nation lurches towards a moral crisis.
  3. The Maths Apocalypse – We ramp up the stress. School leaders put the pressure on their teachers with the higher expectations. The teachers crack under the pressure and shout things at their students like: “why don’t you just get it!” A generation is turned off everything to do with mathematics. It’s a maths apocalypse.

The problem with raising standards for students is that we also need to raise standards of teaching. Many primary teachers have a ‘C’ grade GCSE in maths, yet the maths expectations now required would go a long way towards achieving one of those ‘C’ grades.

The clock is ticking. In 2016, the first cohort of students will be tested on the new curriculum. Only eighteen months away and staff rooms across the country should be buzzing with conversations around how we teach maths and the subject knowledge we need. Networks of maths co-ordinators will right now be exemplifying the standards – turning the words into maths that can be taught and practised. Experts from teacher training will be working closely with schools, finding ways of bringing their new trainee teachers up to the required standard and sharing some of their training expertise with teachers who are struggling with their own maths. Teaching schools will be focusing on developing their Specialist Leaders for Education in mathematics so that schools within their networks without maths specialists have a means of accessing their expertise.

We have time to prepare and to succeed. Doing nothing will only prepare us for the mathematics apocalypse.

The Education-for-Education’s-Sake Curriculum

The most esoteric of curricula, the most elusive and probably the hardest to define. Education for Education’s sake is a strange notion in a sharply pragmatic world. Imagine learning something just because you can… Imagine teaching something because you are interested in it…

This is the curriculum that (I think) drives most teachers. It is the idea that Education itself has its own value – it is worth something all by itself. Set against other curricula, it defies the notion that education has a purpose other than just becoming more educated – it’s not for work, or for standards, it’s not to prove anything or to achieve a goal – it just is. Education for its own sake.

For teachers this curriculum is highly motivating. Teachers released to teach what really interests them fly. PE specialists teach their children to dance, run, compete; musicians teach their pupils to play, hear and compose; artists teach their children to appreciate the aesthetic, whilst RE teachers teach students of the ascetic.

Blended with the other 3 curricula that I am writing about, these highly motivated teachers will enable students to make great academic progress, be prepared for their next stage of life and cover all the necessary objectives required by local and national bodies.

Myself I feel I grew up with a curriculum that majored on Education for Education’s Sake. There were no SATs in the 1970s, yet despite no standards agenda many of peers did really well at school. There were no web designers or mobile phone engineers back then either, yet, despite this lack of specific vocational preparation I have friends who have become both. There was no National Curriculum either – no coverage agenda.

Each teacher was different too. Each had their strengths and weaknesses, but I learned something from each of them. Was this because they were allowed to teach with an emphasis on what interested them? I’m not sure. And I’ve tried to be clear in my previous posts that none of these curricula can exist in isolation.

But I think there is a danger in some schools that we try to clone a particular teaching style, or even a particular teacher. A strength of our education system is not merely the autonomy of each school, but also the autonomy of each teacher – each teacher’s strengths can make a big difference to a student’s prospects – if we clone teaching than we deny students a richness and a breadth that we might otherwise have had.

Education does exist for its own sake. This curriculum is important to blend in with the others that I am writing about.

The Preparation Curriculum

I am making the argument that there are 4 curricula that drive the broad curriculum in schools. This is the second: preparation.

Preparation for the next stage; or for the work place. This is the preparation curriculum. Back in 1870, the first Education Act was driven through by industrialists who were fed up of the Church having all the action in the education business. They said they wanted to prepare children for the workplace, although some would argue that they wanted a share of the growing national pot of money assigned to education. What has changed?

In Early Years, teachers prepare children more formal school by teaching the children phonics and the beginnings of maths. In Key Stage One children are taught to read securely to prepare them to use reading across the curriculum in key Stage Two and to do increasing amounts of work without support. Each stage has its own challenges and the Preparation Curriculum has the task of providing the knowledge and skills to meet these challenges.

The Preparation Curriculum is sometimes at odds with the Standards Curriculum that I wrote about yesterday. For example, when children are boosted to perform at their absolute best In Key Stage 2 SATs and perhaps score a slightly higher mark in reading than they regularly work at, it can be misleading for the Year 7 teacher who then takes on that child in September. Similarly, the current National Curriculum level descriptors at level 2 are often accompanied by the phrase “with support”, yet during the assessment period for Year 2 children Level 2 assessments are accorded the same amount of support as level 3 assessments (and of course, there is no “with support” phrase with any Level 3 descriptors).

This means that schools that are doing their utmost to enable their students to achieve the best standards possible are not always preparing them for the next stage.

Of course, the ultimate preparation is for the ‘workplace’. The Preparation Curriculum would advocate practical and vocational lessons that give students the knowledge and skills for jobs in the real world. In DT, use this glue gun – you might be a carpenter. In Computing, learn this html – you might be a web designer. In science learn about Darwin – you might be a biologist. Some of these jobs will exist in the future, some of them won’t. The challenge of the Preparation Curriculum is to have the right lessons that will prepare children for the workplace.

An advantage of being mindful of the Preparation Curriculum is that it can mitigate against the gaming that I mentioned in the last post: if you are desperate to prepare your students for the next stage of their education or life, that you won’t let them cheat at tests. However, the Preparation Curriculum is predicated on knowing what the future holds and so it is limited by our prescient ability and the stability of our society.


The Standards Curriculum

I am making the argument that there are 4 curricula that drive the broad curriculum in schools. This is the first: standards.

The National Curriculum for September 2014 has provoked a lot of debate since its inception by the current government. What should be in it? What shouldn’t? How should geography be taught? Why change ICT to computing? And so on…

While this debate is purposeful, I believe the new Curriculum has and will have only a marginal impact on what is actually taught in schools. A far more significant impact is that of the Standards Curriculum. This is the curriculum to do with the standards that students reach in various subjects: in reading, writing and maths at the age of 11; in GCSE subjects at the age of 16; in ‘A’ level subjects at the age of 18.

It is the teach-to-the-test curriculum. The curriculum that grates on most teachers. We didn’t come into teaching for this, we say. And yet year after year, we prepare our children for the tests. We cram, we boost, we plan intervention groups. We ensure that our students perform at their absolute best in their assessments.

And with ever greater accountability structures for schools, the tests that drive the standards curriculum become less about what a student can do and more about what a school can get their student to do. There is the temptation, some would argue the tendency, to ‘game the system’ – to take steps that make the school look the best in tests, irrespective of the performance of their students. Some call this cheating.

No one would argue that raising standards for students is an important goal – all schools need a curriculum that does this. But a curriculum that only focuses on standards in tests is a frightening prospect. The question to be asked is how reliable are the standards? Have the students just crammed something for a test only to forget it the next week? Will that teaching stay with them for life? A standards curriculum relies on the performance of its students: if that performance has been over-supported by the school, then students may come out with grades that they cannot sustain and therefore don’t prepare them for the next stage.

However a curriculum that doesn’t focus on standards is also frightening. Imagine a primary school where the teaching of reading didn’t matter. Imagine a secondary school where academic ability was laughed at. We test students for a reason and that is reason is that academic standards are important. Students who are better readers and better mathematicians have more opportunities for themselves and more opportunities to make society a better place.

For me, the Standards Curriculum is the most important of the 4 curricula that make up a broad curriculum within a school. But the other 3 curricula are important too and need to be blended with standards to suit the needs of the school. The New National Curriculum is a useful starting point for standards, but in reality schools will be looking for what is in the tests that will be coming out from 2015 – these will be the driver for the Standards curriculum in the future, not the National Curriculum itself. Imagine the Year 4 teacher in 2016 looking at how to teach her class – will she mainly look at the National Curriculum or the tests she will have to administer at the end of the year? I suspect the latter.

I’m aiming to look at the Preparation Curriculum in my next post.

Chromebooks: the ideal device for the UK classroom

On Thursday at BETT, I spoke on the Google stand with the slightly contentiously titled talk, Chromebooks: the ideal device for the UK classroom.

Now I have to be clear: I think there is no ideal device for a classroom. In fact, I think the ideal classroom has multiple different devices: a mixed economy, or a device-agnostic approach as some like to call it.

Having said that, I believe the UK classroom is in a peculiar situation at the moment, and it’s a situation which lends itself to Chromebooks. Let me explain below, but first here are my slides:

The situation is this:

1. We live in austerity times. Less money has been paid into the education sector in recent years and while this may not have affected school budgets directly, it has affected central services. Schools find it harder now than ever to find speech therapists, social support, education psychologists, behaviour support, specialist subject support, and so on. This means that schools have to make a choice: invest in external support, or maintain internal staffing levels.

2. Not many people know it, but we have a growing bank of great research for what really works. The EEF teacher toolkit has listed some great research for the interventions that really make a difference in schools. What surprises me is that so few teachers know about it or pay much attention to it – at #tmBETT14 recently, when Oliver Quinlan spoke about it, I saw several tweets from people who hadn’t heard of it before. A second surprise is that digital technology is so far down the list – the consequence of this is that you’re far better off investing your resources in training your teachers to give effective feedback than your are investing in technology.

3. We have lots of change, so let’s keep what we can the same. Curricula are changing. Assessment regimes are changing. Teacher standards and performance management have changed. Entire schooling structures are changing with free schools and academy chains. This means we should keep what we can the same – why invest in radically different technology, when our teachers have already had so much change to deal with?

So summing this up: we don’t have much money; spending what we have on technology is probably a waste; changing things puts additional stress on to our teachers.

This is where Chromebooks come in

  • they are cheap. At under £200 each, a class set costs £6000 and support costs are less than £600 a year. The money you save on such a cheap solution can go into funding the interventions that actually make a difference.

  • teachers don’t have to learn anything to use them. Since Chromebooks just do the web – and everyone knows how to use that – learning to use them is not a huge CPD piece.

I have a load of other reasons for why Chromebooks are an amazing device for school but right there were my main two: they are cheap and they are easy. That means all staff in school can spend their time getting on with their main business, which is educating our children.