Three ways to Improve Planning in Primary Mathematics

Since June (and the bad Ofsted and bad SATs results) I have been working on improving planning in maths and it’s really worked. Here’s how.

1. Impose a planning format

If you know anything about union and indeed Ofsted guidance you’ll know that is the *wrong* thing to do. But it’s exactly what I did at my school. I imposed a planning format that everyone had to use.

But planning is for the teacher, not the senior leader, I hear many cry.

No. I disagree.

Planning is for the child.

For too long we had written plans that support what the teacher might say in front of the children, how they might model or an activity or what learning resources they should prepare before the lesson. What we had not done is really think about what the child needs to do during a sequence of lessons to achieve the goals set out in the unit of work.

So in fact, while it was an official planning proforma that I imposed, it was actually the principle behind it that was important. And the principle was this: start the unit plan by writing the final lesson’s learning objective. Then work backwards through the learning objectives that build up to the final one to create a learning journey for the children. It’s a bit like that picture I shared 2 days ago. Then, for each day, plan what children who were likely to exceed the set learning objective might accomplish, and do the same for children who would struggle each lesson.

When this was done, each lesson would have 3 learning objectives around a similar aim, and each lesson would also built towards the next lesson.

What was great was that the teachers who got this, swiftly diverged from the planning proforma I had set up. They got the principle, so who cares if the format looks different? So much for the planning format imposition! What I found is that the teachers who needed most support where those who thought they were doing it right by merely filling in the boxes of the planning proforma without really thinking about the principle. And for these the proforma was a great starting point for explaining the principle in greater depth, thereby developing their mathematics subject knowledge.

2. Supply some medium term plans

There’s a lot to think about in mathematics, especially when you’re a non-specialist dealing with a brand new curriculum that you’ve had little or no training for. While I’m a big fan of ‘ownership’, as I wrote about yesterday, there is a limit to how much new stuff any teacher can take on in one year.

So I gave everyone medium term plans. I had some help. Various folk from different parts of the country have made maths plans and overviews and the like, so I used a few different documents to create medium term plans for mathematics for Years 1-6. I’m going to save the post for the ideal mathematics medium term plan model for another day (probably tomorrow), but suffice it to say that the medium term plans I’ve written have been a useful framework for teachers creating their unit plans mentioned above.

3. Link the medium term plans with assessment

The big problem we have at the moment in Primary is assessment. Nobody is quite sure what the age-related expected standard will look like. To make that more confusing, if a child is ‘age-related’ by the end of the academic year in mathematics, what sort of maths should they be able to do by December? or Easter?.

I looked around for some tests, and found none that suited what I wanted, so I made my own. Well that’s not quite true. I am making my own. So far I’ve made tests for Autumn 1, Autumn 2 and Spring 1. Each of these tests is linked with the medium term plan that should have been taught during that half term.

Of course, I don’t actually agree with testing a curriculum that is not best-fit. I’ve already written about the problems of the previous level-based assessment system being best-fit and how it disadvantages children. And of course any test is a best-fit measure. It seems ludicrous to me to create an ‘expected standard’ curriculum and then use a ‘best-fit’ tool (like a test) to measure how well each child has done, but that, again, is another post, for another time.

The point is that by analysing the tests, each teacher has been able to find out which bits of that unit the child did less well on and use that knowledge to follow up and plan further interventions during the next half term.

In conclusion

I’m biased obviously, but I think mathematics is in a much stronger place at my school than it was six months ago. We’ve had more conversations around mathematics knowledge in the last few months than in the previous five years, and I can really see teachers taking ownership of their maths teaching, rather than relying on third party solutions and merely delivering lessons.

In my next post I’m going to attempt to compare some different models for mathematics medium term planning that I’ve seen.

The Importance of Planning: Ownership or Delivery

How do you approach your planning?

For me, if I know a subject well, like maths or science, then I look at the objectives the children need to learn in the year and lessons start coming to me – lessons that I’ve taught before, or new ones inspired by things I’ve heard about or read about. Then I thread those lessons together into a journey and have a unit of work to teach the children.

When things work like this, I have ownership over the planning. It’s mine. I know what I’m doing and feel secure.

For subjects I know less well, I often rely on others planning. Maybe it’s paid-for – I often use Hamilton Trust or Rising Stars schemes. Sometimes, it might be a colleague’s plans.

For these lessons, I feel like I’m delivering somebody else’s property. The plans aren’t mine. I don’t own them and I feel less prepared to make spontaneous changes that might benefit the children.

It’s inevitable that some planning is like this second model, especially in the Primary sector where you can’t be good at everything, especially when you’re starting out. What I’ve learnt this year, since my school’s not-brilliant-Ofsted is the the importance of moving from the ‘delivery’ model to the ‘ownership’ model.

CPD should be around giving teachers the subject knowledge so they can ‘own’ all their lessons, and that’s how we’ve tried to gear things at my school, particularly in maths which has been one of the main areas of development.

Tomorrow I’ll write more about how we’ve changed things in maths to encourage ownership over delivery.

Aimless Planning

A picture of how to plan
Here’s what planning should look like (in green) and what it shouldn’t look like (in red)

Planning is such an essential part of what teachers do, that it’s hard to believe that we sometimes get it wrong. But we do and we had. I had.

At my school, after a poor inspection outcome and our worst SATs results for 10 years, first came the hand-wringing, then the soul-searching and finally the cold, hard analysis of what we needed to do to fix the mistakes. Quite simply it was planning. Not teaching. Not behaviour. Not assessment. Planning.

The picture above shows what we had been doing and what we needed to do. The red blobs are the lessons. Each individually was a good lesson – it moved the children on during the lesson, there was good modelling, children made progress and did good work. However there had been no journey from one lesson to the next. There were just lots of individually good lessons that seemed to build on children’s starting points, but actually didn’t have an overall aim.

The green lessons are what we are doing now. Starting with an overall aim for the end of the unit (which typically are one or two weeks long), we build backwards to plan the lessons that are needed for the children to reach that aim. And we keep planning backwards until we find the children’s starting point. It’s been a much more healthy and vibrant process and, though it’s early days, it seems to be really working.

If you’ve read some of my previous #lentblog posts, you may well consider it inevitable that schools end up doing that ‘red blob’ aimless planning. There is such a pressure to perform within a lesson, for children to make progress within that singular lesson, that it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture of where you are trying to get the children to. And also there are so many supposedly useful schemes and resources out there for lesson preparation that it’s easy to forget that one of the most important tools a teacher has is their own subject knowledge, and not the ability to use somebody else’s downloadable content.

For the rest of this week, my focus in #lentblog is going to be on planning, some of the resources I’ve created and the lessons I’ve learned from trying to improve planning.

I’m only as good as my last… [fill in the blank]

Sundays do not count towards the 40 days of lent, so I’m in my rights to give up my writing for the day, as it won’t contribute towards the #40daysofwriting I’ve taken up for Lent. However, I’ve decided to continue writing on Sundays, but make these posts less educationish and more reflective.

This one’s about identity.

I heard it commented this week how Jose Mourinho’s ‘stock had fallen’ in recent times. The ex-Chelsea and Real Madrid manager has won more than most and has an international reputation. Yet like all of us he’s only as good as his last game or his last season. And if it was failure, then it can’t be very good.

I feel the same.

I’m only as good as my last… [fill in the blank]. For most teachers the blank is filled in like this: [observed lesson].

For me, I feel this pressure too. I place much of my identity in what people say about my teaching. Especially observers. When I was observed in the school’s previous Ofsted in 2012, I was so delighted by the inspector’s judgement of ‘Outstanding’ that I wrote an extensive post about it. I was proud. I was successful. I was ‘outstanding’.

But this year, when my headteacher saw me teach in September he said my teaching required improvement. I had positioned myself with my back to some children. These children then went off task during the lesson so a significant group had not made progress. It was irrelevant that this was my first reading lesson in 5 years (I had been doing maths interventions during that period). Some children had not made progress during the lesson. I was disappointed. I was down on myself. I ‘required improvement’.

Two opposite experiences had occurred, each one with an effect on my identity. Because it has become clear to me that I place much of my self-worth in my competence at my job. But surely my identity is more than that.

At the top of my blog I label myself ‘educator and pub-theorist’ (the latter not because I spend all my time in a pub, but because most of my theories are worthy of being generated in such a place). On Twitter I have labelled myself as ‘frogphilp’, perhaps indicating a slight irreverence and lack of seriousness. I am a dad, a husband, a son. I am a gamer, a whisky drinker, a guitarist.

And yet for all these different aspects of my identity, the thing that knocks me back the most is having a bad observation.

I’ve been considering both the negative and positive factors on my identity over recent months in the light of the negative emotions brought about by the negative observation. I think that for me there are things that I can do that make me more vulnerable to a negative reaction like I had, but there are also things that I can do that protect me and make me more resilient to such reactions. But that’s a post for next Sunday.


For the Inspector’s Eyes Only

It’s Saturday morning and lots of teachers around the country are getting up early to start their weekend chore – marking the books.

A picture of some books. Some of them have been marked.
Books are king. But who are they really for?

And what a chore it has become recently.

You tick and highlight and comment. You make sure you have the correct shade of the correct colour of pen that your school has chosen to mark in.You date objectives and targets in front of the book. You write detailed ‘active’ challenges or gap-tasks that will re-engage their children with their last lesson and help them with the next small step in their learning. You check that the children have responded to the previous gap-tasks and you might even write more on them. After all the learning dialogue is crucial and it is even better if it is personalised to each learner.

And then there’s the marking codes that indicate whether the child has worked independently or not. The sign that means you gave verbal feedback. The stamp that indicates the child did really well. And the other colours that supply teachers and teaching assistants are allowed to use for marking. And the colour that the child does their self assessment in. Maybe there’s even a fifth colour that other children are allowed to their peer assessment in.

But who are we doing all this for? Do the children really need this level of complexity in their written feedback?

Some of my best lessons have come from when I’ve simply sorted books at the end of a lesson. It goes something like this:

  • This pile got it and they reasoned about it. They need to consolidate in a different context. Or if they’ve already done that, learn something new.
  • This pile almost got it. They made some process errors – they’ve got the concept, but need more time.
  • This pile didn’t get it, but they can. They might need a different model – a different presentation. They might need some equipment, but they’ll definitely be much closer to it by the end of the year.
  • Whoah! This pile not only didn’t get it, they don’t get some of the concepts that go before it. I completely over-pitched to these children and need to go back a few steps.

But the problem is, inspectors don’t see you sorting. They don’t see your lesson evaluations or your day-by-day adjustment of planning. They don’t see you using your excellent subject knowledge to tweak things so that the children can make the best possible progress.

No. Inspectors only see your books. Books are King.

Did you know that in many schools the books are thrown away at the end of each year (after having their covers removed and shredded so that no child can be identified in the rubbish)?

And yet books are king.

I would like to work in an education system where brains are king and we can be proud of what we our children do with our books? But how can inspectors judge that?

How we have punished our low ability children

School days are the best days of your life
School days are the best days of your life. If you’re not less able.

So you have a primary classroom.

You set it up: 15 tables, 30 seats.

You organise it into table groups of 6. Or maybe even 4 if you’re really radical.

Then you think about behaviour management. You need to show the children who’s in control. That child can’t go next to that child. No. Those three won’t work together. Yes. Maybe she’ll help him to focus. Oh – he’ll have to go in the middle so any inspector won’t get to him.

What about ability? Now these 6 are the top group. Yes I know that one isn’t quite up there, but maybe she’ll be dragged along by the coattails of the others. There are the middle tables. And there’s the SEN group. Yup, she’s low ability too, she can sit with the SEN. Yes I know he’s ASD, but he’ll be best with the SEN group to get the extra support. Those ones are low too, there’s not quite 6 of them though. I know. I’ll put that middle ability child there. What’s her name? I always forget her.

The problem with levels and the best-fit approach that I wrote about yesterday, was that you could have children with radically different abilities working on the same learning. For example, say I have some level 2 children in my Year 4 class. I could put them all on the same table and teach them some level 3 objectives to move them on. But some of them would already know some of that level 3 stuff. And some others would have gaps in their level 2 knowledge meaning that actually they need to learn the level 2 stuff first.

And what’s even worse is that by setting up an ability group based inaccurately on prior learning, you limit those pupils to only make small steps from their supposed starting points, rather than having an ambitious end point for what the pupils could achieve.

And I’m not just speaking theoretically here. Teaching in year 4 this year, I have picked up a class where there was a fixed ‘bottom group’ and ‘next-to-bottom group’. Instead of fixing the groups at the start of the year, me and the teacher I job-share with (I’m a deputy head, so not in class full time) have changed the groups (often on a daily basis) based on their learning the day before, not on some broad brush-stroke academic level. This has meant that we can follow up concepts that have not been learned the next day and keep pushing the children on. The consequence of this is that 3 children who had been labelled as ‘SEN’ are no longer – they have moved rapidly towards the expected standard for Year 4. Don’t get me wrong, there are still genuine SEN children within the class who really struggle to make progress for a whole range of reasons. But it is not right for us to lump a load of children together just because it makes our classroom management more straightforward.

Right now, as we hurtle to what looks like a fiasco-of-an-end-of-year assessment across the country, I think we are right on the knife edge between a fantastic, aspirational curriculum and a progress-measures-led doom as school leaders rapidly reinvent levels so that they can justify their own organisations. If the latter happens, pity the supposedly less-able children who simply had the misfortune of being put in the wrong group when they were 5.

Image courtesy of:

The problem with a best-fit approach

Here’s a handy graph, just ready for a best fit line to be drawn through it

It is not often that I read a 50-page government-commissioned document and get wildly excited. But that is what happened when I read the “Final Report on the Commission on Assessment without levels” (September 2015).

I found pages 12-18 particularly inspiring as the commission explains the rationale behind why levels are bad and ‘not-levels’ are good.

This statement was pertinent:

Levels also used a ‘best fit’ model, which meant that a pupil could have serious gaps in their knowledge and understanding, but still be placed within the level.

And this one:

Levels were used to measure both end of phase achievement and lesson-by-lesson formative progress, but they had not been designed to fulfil the latter purpose, with the result that formative assessment was often distorted.

Just as in yesterday’s post, when I tried to explain a character flaw that had held back my practice, here was a practical example of something I was doing day-to-day which was not actually any good.

As a key stage 2 teacher I had experienced this over many years. Children came up to my phase ostensibly as ‘a level 2 child’, but the best fit approach meant that while they could add a pair of 2-digit numbers with the support of a 1-100 number square, they had no idea of any other strategies for doing the same thing, nor really any sense of the the size of the numbers they were dealing with, nor the purpose of the equals sign.

And likewise I must have been doing the same to my secondary colleagues for years: children from key stage 2 going up to key stage 3 being able to scrape enough marks to get a level 4 in a SATs test, but not with the necessary number or problem solving skills to really go any further. In fact at my school, analysis of SATS shows me that number skills have always been high, but problem solving really low – the children have been able to scrape through with good routine number skills, but lack the fluency to really excel in maths.

What is even more insidious about the ‘best-fit’ approach is what it does to ability groups within a class, particularly low ability children. But that’s tomorrow’s topic.

Image courtesry of:


Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Polish painting of Ash Wednesday I found on Wikipedia.
Polish painting of Ash Wednesday I found on Wikipedia.

Ash Wednesday. That slightly strange day in the middle of the church calendar that starts the preparation for Easter. A year ago, the palm crosses used to remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem were burned and their ashes are today used to mark the sign of the cross on the foreheads of believers.

For me the last year has been one of burning what I once thought was good – turning it into ash – so that something new can come from it.

While much of the journey took place in 2015, it all started with a wise observation from Mark Anderson (@ICTEvangelist) at the Google Teacher Academy in October 2014.

My team had been working on our prototype: our big idea for something that might change the world of education. It was an exciting couple of days, meeting and working with some fantastic educational thinkers and innovators. Right in the middle of it, Mark looked at our idea and said that it looks like we had thought of a solution and were now trying to fit it into a problem.

Have you ever had one of those moments when the camera zooms in on you and you realise something significant has happened. A sudden epiphany. A moment of clarity that reveals all along where you had been going wrong. This was one of those moments. I knew it was significant. I knew I should do something about it. But in the heady fervour of the Google Teacher Academy, I couldn’t quite work out what it was.

Maybe I would work it out when I got home? Or back to school – when I was back to normality? Or maybe during the next break – at Christmas perhaps?

No. Not me. It took me a full year to realise what Mark had put his finger on.

The thing is, Mark hadn’t only described the prototype my team had been working on. He had described my whole life. It was me. I thought I was an educational solution and I spent my time busily structuring and controlling the problem so that I solved it.

In school leadership I often get fed up of others only ever moaning about problems. So in my desire to be solution-focused, I had begun limiting the problems so that my current set of skills and abilities could meet it.

Being solution-focused is great, but if it makes you blind to the scope of the problem it is very dangerous. That’s true in all walks of life and particularly I have discovered that the hard way in education over the last year. And that’s what much of my #lentblog is going to explore.

Image courtsey of: (creative commons)

Flat as a Pancake

A Pancake in a frying pan
Really, really flat. A bit like this pancake.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here. The reason is that I’ve had the stuffing well and truly kicked out of me at times over the last year. I have been flat as a pancake.

A failed inspection. The worst SATs results in ten years. Failed performance management. I’ve been through an education desert. A wilderness. And with some medical problems too tedious to write about to compound matters, it really has been a dark night of the soul.

I have a little mantra that I live by: things can always get better; things can always get worse. So I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that from today things will definitely get better. And don’t be naive enough to believe that things have been unfailingly terrible for the last year. But it’s certainly been the most challenging time I’ve faced during my career as a teacher and I intend to write about some of those educational experiences during Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday: tomorrow.

This Lent, I am giving up my writing lethargy and taking up a commitment to post something every day. So here we go, for #40daysofwriting to coincide with Lent.

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