Lessons learned #5: You don’t achieve consistency through consistency.

One of the criticisms that Ofsted had for us last June was that we had a lack of consistency.

So we revamped the marking policy and the presentation policy. We did a book scrutiny and a series of learning walks. We wrote up what we found and fed it back to staff as whole school feedback. Nothing changed.

Here’s something I’ve learned: whole school feedback does absolutely nothing. All it does is make the best teachers feel more guilty and therefore more stressed than they already are, and the teachers who need the most development don’t realise just how much development they need. So as a leader it may feel like you are giving the staff a consistent message, which surely must help increase consistency, but actually it’s doing just the opposite.

That wasn’t entirely a revelation for me, as it was the kind of thing I knew in principle, but living and breathing the reality of needing to make rapid changes in a few months really made me learn it.

Since then I have started an ongoing document for each staff teacher which encapsulates areas for development and actions to take around the teaching of mathematics. This has been great, because each teacher has their own needs – their own starting points – but each teacher also has two aims in terms of their quality of work: compliance and development.

Every school, every organisation, has their own set of non-negotiables to which their staff must comply. That is the first step to achieving consistency. Some people find this harder than others – my Achilles heel is my handwriting, which I can do well when I concentrate, but at the end of marking 90 books, if I’m not careful it does tend to drift towards the illegible. Achieving consistency is about giving the individual feedback to help each staff member become compliant with the non-negotiables. At my school, it’s not good telling all the staff to improve their handwriting in their marking,as that’s only a message that the select few need to hear.

Development is even more important than compliance. We all want to be the very best teacher we can be. Three things make us good teachers: subject knowledge, pedagogy and motivation, but we’re all strong in different areas. It’s the job of our senior leaders to identify the areas that we need to get better at and give us just the right guidance to become even better in each of those areas. And again, if you were to only work on subject knowledge for all staff, when behaviour management (part of pedagogy) was the issue, you would not be achieving consistency.

It’s been my job to raise standards in maths teaching across the school. I’ve done this by working inconsistently on compliance and development with different teachers, giving them individual written guidance to do so. We’re not there yet, but by feeding back inconsistently, I hope that I have increased consistency.

Lessons Learned #4: Read

I wrote on Sunday that reading more is one strategy I’ve adopted to nurture my identity. And a couple of days before that I explained how I’d missed some vital information by not reading the mathematics curriculum document in its entirety.

Something I’ve learned is that I need to read more. Or in some cases just read at all.

Sometimes I’ve been busy creating stuff, that I’ve forgotten to take time out to take in the stuff that other people have created. Whether it’s blogging, posting, tweeting, or monitoring and observing, or planning and marking – there’s always so much to write.

And I’ve been guilty of creating so much stuff that I end up only listening to my own voice, and then my perception can get skewed.

Last Summer I began to recognise the pattern I’d got into and I read my first book on teaching in about five years. It was Teacher Geek, by Rachel Jones (@rlj1981 on Twitter). I really quite enjoyed it. It was so refreshing to hear a different voice offering some different ways of doing things.

And of course, the seminal read for all teachers in September 2015 was The Final Report from the Commission on Assessment without Levels, which I mentioned when writing about the problem with the old best-fit approach a couple of weeks ago. It doesn’t sound like a good read does it? But if you’ve been struggling with mad, over-bureaucratic assessment systems, then reading this report is like drinking a long, cold glass of Pimms on a hot Summer’s day: refreshing and slightly giddying.

And since then I have been reading more: teacher stuff and fiction and it’s been good. I could write a lot more about this, but I need to go off and practice what I preach… Now, where’s that book?

Lessons Learned #3: Don’t wear the cape

"I am here to help!"
“I am here to help!”

In the term before the not-so-brilliant Ofsted, I had a not-so-brilliant time. Like many teachers, I didn’t realise that things were going badly until, gasping, bleeding and burned I crashed into the Easter holidays.

Though I thought I recovered well, the effects of that term  were felt at the inspection and in some ways are still being felt now.

You see, as I blogged right at the start of this #lentblog, I think I’m a hero. I put on my cape and come dashing in to save the day. There are many issues to this approach, such as:

  • the fatigue from trying to be a hero when you’re not actually one;
  • taking away the ability of other people to solve their problems.
  • just imposing a solution without really listening to the problem, thereby making the problem worse;
  • moving on to another problem so quickly that you didn’t fix the first one, leaving people disappointed and so creating yet another problem.

I did all of that in the term before Ofsted.

There was a struggling Year 6 maths group. I took them on and tried to teach them. I had never done that sort of intervention from as late in the academic year as January. But I thought I could. I thought I could move them from the start of the old level 3 to the old level 4 in twelve weeks. I couldn’t as it turned out. But I thought I could, because I wore a cape. I was so arrogant I even blogged about it.

I was in charge of day-to-day staffing at the time. There were lots of staff off for various reasons during that term. Just creating the rotas for different PPA timetables each week was hard enough, but when I saw the impact of lots of different supply teachers on some classes, I decided I should intervene and teach them myself. I put on my cape. It was exhausting.

During that term my headteacher was training to be an Ofsted inspector. It meant he spent several days out of school. During that time I ran the school and dealt with all the stuff. But I would be fine I thought – I had a cape.

Did I also mention that I built my own data capture system out of a network or interrelated Google Spreadsheets that even had coloured boxes in. It looked fantastic. It was time consuming. But it would be fine – I had a cape.

And so it went on. The delusions of being a superhero.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a colleague about stuff we needed to do to make things better and during the conversation I said, “don’t worry, I can do that.” It was to do with me teaching an additional group of children. My colleague said, “don’t you be putting that cape on again when your deputy role means you can’t actually keep the commitment.”

That’s when it struck home.

As a school leader it’s my job to help everyone in the school find their own cape, not wear my own to the detriment of others.

Image from: https://pixabay.com/en/superman-superhero-cape-sky-1016322/

Lessons Learned #2: Don’t colour the numbers

Here's some numbers with pretty colours...
Here’s some numbers with pretty colours…

I’m a big fan of conditional formatting. Look how you can put a number in and the whole box changes colour! Amazing!

I had done a lot of conditional formatting by the time Ofsted arrived last June. But Ofsted don’t want colours. They just want the numbers. And by the time they arrived, whilst I controlled the colours, I had no idea what was going on with the numbers.

The core of the problem is that what I thought was the assessment system, was actually only the data capture system.

There are a whole load of things that need to happen before a number appears on a spreadsheet to indicate how well a child is doing. The child needs to be taught something. They need to then really learn that thing so they can apply it ways that aren’t in the routine lesson in which they were originally taught the thing: like a test, or a piece of extended writing. They need to evidence they have learned the thing too. Tests are fine, but remember that books are king, so the evidence has to be in the books. After that you can quantify how much the child has learned the thing. Then you can put that quantity into a spreadsheet. You can total it, average it, filter it and apply a whole load of other formulae to it.

And if you’re like me you’ll want to colour it.

That last part is the data capture system. But the whole paragraph is the school assessment system.

Somewhere in that system, you will have defined the criteria ‘good’ and ‘bad’ looks like. Unfortunately I wasn’t in control of that either – I just coloured the numbers.

By the time the numbers reached the inspectors, the criteria for ‘good’ colours had managed to exceed the criteria for ‘good’ numbers. This meant that the colours looked a lot better than the numbers. But the inspectors didn’t have the colours. And with the criteria that we had given the inspectors the numbers did not look good. And when the numbers don’t look good, it’s easy to go and look in books and find evidence that proves that the numbers were never so good in the first place.

With the new assessment without levels and every school building up their own system from scratch, it’s vital that school leaders don’t lose the big picture of what their assessment system actually shows. If you say to inspectors “our children are making better than expected progress, and look, our assessment system shows it,” the inspectors will simply pick up some Year 2 books and some Year 4 books and see if there is evidence to show the ‘better than expected progress’.

If that evidence doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter how much you have coloured the numbers, the assessment system is broken.


Lessons Learned #1: It’s not kind to be kind

It’s been 8 months since my school’s not-so-brilliant Ofsted Inspection. I’ve been wanting to write about how it all went wrong, but it’s still too soon and it involves more people than just me. In addition, that sort of writing – focusing on failure – can get a bit grim and bleak, although I do recognise that many people these days call that ‘authentic’. So this week, I’m going to focus on what I’ve learned from since last June form the whole Ofsted process.

Lesson #1: It’s not kind to be kind.

I’m reminded of that Nicky Wire lyric (Manic Street Preachers): if you tolerate this, then your children will be next.

A few years ago I observed a lesson that I thought required improvement. However the person I jointly observed the lesson with didn’t agree. Well. They kind of did. What they said was that if we gave that grade to that teacher it would ‘break them’. So I made a mistake. I didn’t stick to my guns and fight my corner. I agreed with the decision because it felt the kind thing to do for the teacher in question.

I can’t remember all the factors for my ‘R.I.’ judgement. It had been a very busy lesson with high expectations, but I felt that many of the less able children had not really made any progress. In fact one child with SEN spent ten minutes crying in the corner during the lesson. Apparently this child did that a lot.

A little voice should have been screaming warnings in my head. But instead I chose to be kind to the teacher. I didn’t even go back to see if the same child was crying the next day.

This year, I am teaching the child who cried. They are doing great, in my opinion. But I often wonder how much better they might be doing if I’d chosen not be kind a few years ago.



Nurturing my Identity

Sundays are not part of my commitment to #40daysofwriting on #lentblog, but nevertheless I find myself musing and writing about aspects of my identity that I’ve become more self-aware of in the last year. Last Sunday, I wrote about identity and how so much of it is wrapped up in my performance in my job. Today I go on to considering what I’ve done to diminish the negative draws on my identity and increase the positive ones.

I consider that I have quite an addictive personality. I get into things with a great deal of enthusiasm and then find myself thinking about them with every thought and doing them with every spare minute. This has often been to my advantage as a teacher – give me a topic that I’m interested in and I’ll throw myself into it wholeheartedly.

Two years ago I got really into developing the school website. I spent every Monday evening often working until beyond midnight trying to make it better, doing things I’d seen others do, making it inspirational. Really the website should have been a long way down my list of priorities. I could have delegated the responsibility, I could have outsourced it to focus on my core role. But no, I worked so hard on it until I actually found myself failing at other things I should have been doing. Finally realisation struck. The obsession had become part of my identity  – I was using it to define myself: “I’m the deputy head who can make great websites”. But the obsession was draining. It was taking time away from more important aspects of my work and more importantly, my family. I had to stop it.

There have been other examples too, sometimes with work, sometimes with gaming, sometimes with social media – getting into something that on its own would be harmless but the depth that I’ve worked at it has been obsessive and damaging. Instead of a computer game being a moment of fun it becomes part of my identity. As Tozer says: “the roots of our hearts have grown down into things and we dare not pull up one rootlet lest we die.” That’s me with the things I obsess about.

So what I’ve done about it? Well in summary: less of the bad stuff, more of the good stuff.

Diminishing the bad stuff

1. Keeping my phone downstairs, especially at weekends.
2. Having a day each weekend (normally Sunday) when no work is done and the minimum of screens are used.
3. Having an evening each week when I do no work.

Increasing the good stuff

1. Praying more.
2. Spending more time with my wife.
3. Choosing to meet friends instead of playing computer games or working.
4. Reading books (up until last Summer, I hadn’t read a book in 2 years.
5. Blogging to reflect rather than to gain popularity.

Of course, I’m not there yet. Physical exercise – running, swimming and cycling especially –  is something I need to do more of, and have to admit that in the middle of this term, my wife and family were still somewhat neglected in favour of work. I I wrote my “nurturing identity” report, it might say: trying had but could do better.

ref: “The Pursuit of God” by A.W. Tozer: chapter 2 The blessedness of possessing nothing

Planning for Reasoning

I’ve known for a while that we need to improve our reasoning and problem solving teaching at my school. Analysis of the SATs papers showed that whilst number skills were really high, skills in ‘using and applying’ (as reasoning and problem solving were called) were less developed. Referring back to the post on why it was good that levels were dropped, it could be said that some children were moving on from primary with level 4 in maths overall, level 4 in number, but only level 3 in using and applying. This use of levels to mask a specific weakness in what a child can do is another reasdon they are bad.

The not-brilliant Ofsted in June, only shed a brighter light on what I already knew – we needed to change our teaching so that children learned to reason more.

This is a hard thing to do, particularly for older children when this expectation hasn’t been there all the way through school. There is a legacy of doing maths in a certain way, which leaves gaps in knowledge and resistance when a new way comes along.

However, 2 key documents from the NCETM have really helped us out. Firstly the Planning for reasoning documents, which have ideas for how to get children reasoning for every objective in the national curriculum. Secondly the Maths Hubs materials for mastery (and mastery with a greater depth) have the expectation that children are reasoning writ large through them.

These documents have been brilliant in supporting me and the teachers to have a greater expectations of what children can do. It would be even better if someone could produce some text books with these expectations equally prevalent…

The Impact of Fluency on Maths Planning

As my week on planning continues, I will now confess the biggest mistake I had made when moving over to the new curriculum in 2014: I only read the programmes of study.

The maths curriculum document is relatively large, and as a deputy headteacher I have a range of responsibilities beyond mathematics, so I thought I had become relatively good at skim-reading important documents and pulling out the key information. In maths I thought it was the programmes of study – the actual content of the curriculum. As it turns out, I was wrong.

In a short section at the start of the document, the aims of the curriculum are spelled out:

  • become fluent in the fundamentals of mathematics, including through varied and frequent practice with increasingly complex problems over time, so that pupils develop conceptual understanding and the ability to recall and apply knowledge rapidly and accurately.

  • reason mathematically by following a line of enquiry, conjecturing relationships and generalisations, and developing an argument, justification or proof using mathematical language

  • can solve problems by applying their mathematics to a variety of routine and non-routine problems with increasing sophistication, including breaking down problems into a series of simpler steps and persevering in seeking solutions.

It would have been easy for me to take that in, but I skipped it and as it turned out, so did everyone else in my school.

This year, as we have striven to correct the mistakes of the year before, fluency, reasoning and problem solving have become the language of maths. Whenever we speak about maths lessons, or books, or planning, or CPD, those words always come out. If you did a Word Cloud of our dialogue around maths, those words would by far be the biggest. But what do they really mean? In this post I’m focused on fluency, but I’ll come to other two in the future.

Fluency is three things:

  • efficiency – instant recall and speed – having the very best method for solving a given problem
  • accuracy – getting things right and knowing you’ve got them right.
  • flexibility – being able to use maths in different contexts and domains.

What’s interesting is that if you just take the programmes of study for maths and deliver the content you find there, you will not make the children fluent. For example, in year 5 it says to teach the pupils this:

add and subtract whole numbers with more than 4 digits, including using formal written methods (columnar addition and subtraction).

If you took that statement at face value without the overarching aim of fluency you might consider it perfectly fine to teach the children how to add and subtract using a number line and if they are always accurate with the number line, you might teach them the formal method, but not really expect them to use it because they already have a method that works. You’ve taught rhe children to become accurate, but they are not yet fluent.

If you want the children to become fluent, you need efficiency too. So you have to teach them the formal method and teach it well, because for most 4-digit calculations, the formal method is the most efficient. You would also teach the children when a mental method is more appropriate, as we’ve all seen children do something like 4000-3998 in a formal method, because they are so conditioned to use it blindly.

But fluency is more than this. It is also flexibility. It’s easy to show that a child can add and subtract 4-digit numbers in a lesson about adding and subtracting 4-digit numbers. But what tended to happen in my school was children only being exposed to 4-digit numbers when they had to. When they were learning something else, say measures or coordinates, the numbers would be much smaller. The implication of fluency is clear – children should be able to add and subtract 4-digit numbers in any context and even in lessons when they have not been directly taught it. The teaching of the add and subtract 4-digit numbers objective should have an impact on the children that lasts into every maths lesson.

This has made a huge impact on our planning, some good and some bad:

  • Good in that expectations are much higher – when an objective is taught, the expectation is that it will not be dumbed down in future lessons throughout the term. This means when I where my monitoring hat, I am deliberately looking for occasions when the child can use something they have been taught out of the original context. It also means that teachers are now always on the look out for ways to use a taught skill in a different context and are more flexible in their own planning, adjusting lessons to to recap and consolidate key skills when children have not quite learned them.
  • Bad because all of our text books and resources don’t work like that, so teachers have had to spend a lot more time preparing activities then they used to.

There’s a another aspect to the impact of fluency on planning. The mental maths skills that underpin the ability to fluently add and subtract 4-digit numbers are not explicit in the programmes of study, but they are explicit when you read each statement with the words in the ‘fluency aim’ bullet point echoing round your brain. For example, when should children be able to double 36? At what point should a child be able to say that 3.4➗2 is 1.7 because half of 34 is 17? When do they get the sense of number that means they don’t blindly use a formal method to do 4000-3998? The reason I’ve put this at the end of the post is that we’ve not solved the mental maths side of things yet. That’s next half term’s work.


Medium Term plans in Primary Mathematics

How does your school organise their mathematics curriculum? There are broadly two ways of doing this. You could, in a three term year, divide the content equally between each term and teach a third in the Autumn term, a third in the Spring term and the final third in the Summer term. Or you could teach each domain of maths in more depth, sequentially going through them during the year and not revisiting them.

Here are three different models that all have their strengths and weaknesses.

1. The Scattergun Coverage Model by Hamilton Trust.

I’m not entirely sure how this model was planned, except that it seems to have covered all the objectives throughout the year.

Hamilton Trust cover objectives in a seeming scattergun approach
Hamilton Trust cover objectives in a seeming scattergun approach

This little extract informs teachers in which weeks they will be visiting different objectives. In my school, with the amount of work required to adopt the new curriculum, we thought this would do us fine, but actually what happened (as I’ve written) was that teachers did not take ownership of their planning and instead merely delivered the lessons they found in the order they were given. The outcome was that, whilst individual lessons were often good, the units (a week or fortnight of lessons) were often aimless with no sense of the children being on a learning journey. Maths only happened in the maths lesson and was very much isolated from the rest of the curriculum.

Much of this was my fault. As the maths leader I hadn’t taken responsibility for the planning that teachers had adopted. I’m sure many schools can make the Hamilton Trust plans work for them, but for us it had led to failure and so we needed a change.

2. The year-long blocked approach by White Rose Maths Hub

It’s too late to adopt this now, but you could plan to take it on for September.

The Overview for the medium term plans created by the White Rose Maths Hub
The Overview for the medium term plans created by the White Rose Maths Hub

As you’ll see from the picture, all the number and calculation objectives are taught by the end of Week 9 Spring term, and in much longer blocks than we have used in the past, enabling children to learn concepts with a much greater depth. I think this model will work brilliantly, and I’m currently discussing with the staff whether to adopt it for the next academic year. This maths hub have created tests for their medium term plans so you can assess how well the children are getting on. You can sign up for their free resources here.

3. The Term-by-Term approach (by me)

This approach was recommended to me by a headteacher who was part of the first peer review we had after our not-brilliant Ofsted. She said that I should base my plans on the 1999 schemes of work. So I went back to them and found them still hosted on a website in Dudley. Then I used a document that I only have a paper copy of called the ‘Steps Up’. I believe this was created by a group of Birmingham mathematics SLEs and provides some useful guidance as to what are the steps up to achieving the age-related expectations in each year group.

The model I went for was for the teachers to visit each domain during a term. They would cover all the content by the end of the Spring term (half in the Autumn term, the other half in the Spring term) and then use the Summer term to consolidate the age-related expectations.

My medium term plans are here:

Medium Term Plans

You’ll see that they are not quite finished yet. I haven’t written the Summer Term, nor have I completed the mental maths part of the plans – what you see in the mental maths part are still the old expectations from 1999.

Finally, I made some tests for the plans. These tests are half termly and I used Testbase to make them – a paid for service that hosts all the test questions asked of children in the England’s testing system for the past 20 years. You can find the tests here in their own folder.

You may consider it quite an effort to write a whole load of medium term plans. But it’s given me a much better insight into the new curriculum and a much greater sense of ownership over what we are teaching at my school. The problem with using other people’s plans, is that you end up believing the lie that you shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel, when actually the process of reinvention is healthy all by itself.

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.

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