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 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.

The 4 Curricula

What I like about the new UK Curriculum (the one that becomes statutory in September 2014) is that it’s a bottom line. It isn’t an aspirational curriculum like the old one used to be – it just provides the basics for what schools should cover. I think this is important, because it is the role of schools to encourage the aspirations of their pupils, rather than national government. How can a national government in a multi-cultural society encourage the aspirations of every student, given the huge range of backgrounds and expectations that exist? Schools are much better placed for this job, and within each school, each teacher using their amazing skills to educate their students.

I think the broad curriculum that a student is taught at each school is made up of 4 separate curricula:

  1. The Standards Curriculum
  2. The Preparation Curriculum
  3. The Education for Education’s Sake Curriculum
  4. The Coverage Curriculum

I would like to spend the next few posts exploring these curricula and unpicking my claim that schools with more autonomy are better for students than schools with less autonomy

Moral Purpose

What is the new fad in school leadership? What is the phrase that will be top dollar in jargon bingo? Will it be ‘whole school A4L’ or ‘Personalised learning‘? Will school leaders be asking their staff to ‘think outside of the box’ or engage in ‘blue sky thinking’?

Nope. None of the above. The phrase that I can guarantee you hearing from your school leaders over the next few months is ‘moral purpose‘.

I remember many years ago being in a school where we had significant staff training about assemblies. One of the phrases that came up over and over again was ‘awe and wonder’. It seemed that somebody from up on high, maybe even the government, had decided that schools were the best place for children to experience awe and wonder. Therefore a mandate had been issued to headteachers who were to engender this experience within their schools. Assemblies were the target. A week or so after our training, I remember the headteacher starting an assembly by lighting a candle. He had never done this before. He then told the children that they were experiencing awe and wonder. I could immediately see his logic. If the children knew they were experiencing awe and wonder they could tell the imminent Ofsted inspectors all about it. Hmmm.

Now it seems that moral purpose is the thing we will all be working towards. It seems that many people in education are concerned that school leaders have being sucked into something called game theory. A bit like those badminton players at the Olympics who played within the rules, yet against the spirit of the game, to achieve what they thought would be the best outcome… So school leaders, it is thought, may be ‘playing the game’ of education.

It’s as though getting your school higher up the league table is more important than the outcomes for individual children. It’s almost as if achieving the top grade in Ofsted is more important than children being able to independently achieve the top grade possible for each of them in each subject they study. Of course many people would argue that these things are synonymous. A high league table position means that all children achieve their full potential. Or does it show that the leaders within those schools are merely good at ‘playing the game’? Some people have even suggested that there may be cheating going on.

The new teacher standards demand more. Honesty and integrity are explicitly referred to. High standards of behaviour both in and outside of school are implied in the preamble. For teachers to achieve this, leaders need a sense of ‘moral purpose’.

Now I’ve got a whole load of mixed feelings about the word ‘purpose’ and even more about the word ‘moral’. There are lot of assumptions blithely made about shared morals that I’m not entirely sure are true. I’ll need a few more posts and conversations with folk to crystallise my own thoughts on the subject.

However I am sure that it will become an important phrase, having heard the likes of Mick Waters, Tim Brighouse, John West-Burnham and Steve Munby all mention ‘Moral Purpose’ in separate addresses in recent weeks. Perhaps all those ‘keynoters’ are using the phrase because Michael Gove used it back in April.

Does anyone have any school leaders who are quick off the mark and have already begun a new mantra of ‘moral leadership’? Does anyone think it’s important? What morals should we subsribe to anyway?