• Charlie’s Angles

Two pleas to maths teachers at the start of the school year

The NCETM’s Director, Charlie Stripp, has warned of the dangers of putting pressure on pupils to ‘catch-up’

Two pleas to maths teachers at the start of the school year
  • Published: 09/09/2020

There are two things I’d like to suggest to teachers and school leaders planning maths lessons at the start of this unique school year.

  • Avoid putting pupils under pressure to ‘catch-up.’ Calm consolidation of fundamental maths knowledge is what’s needed.
  • Use any extra one-to-one maths support wisely. This should complement, not replace, timetabled maths lessons.

Avoid talk of ‘catch-up.’

With most pupils having missed more than five months of school, I can see teachers might be tempted to speed through topics in a superficial way, and cram in curriculum coverage through instrumental learning. ‘That’ll get them all back on track quickly’, some might think.

I disagree.

Students’ confidence is likely to have been severely dented by missing so much school and, for Years 6 and 11, not being able to sit important exams. Many will be particularly anxious about maths, aware how important the subject is. They might be worried about what they’ve missed or concerned the maths part of their brain has gone rusty. We should recognise this and avoid doing anything to pile on more pressure. Talk of ‘catching-up’ won’t help.

I strongly believe that the key to getting students’ maths education back on track over the new academic year will be working with them sensitively through calm, focused teaching, prioritising the most fundamental maths topics to develop and reinforce key knowledge and ideas. This will increase students’ confidence and ensure new learning can be built on firm mathematical foundations.

This is exactly the approach we have used at the NCETM with our colleagues in Maths Hubs in creating resources and guidance for primary and secondary teachers to meet the particular challenges as schools fully reopen.

The AMSP is taking a similar approach in its extensive additional support for teachers and students of Core Maths and AS/A level Maths and Further Maths.

Make the most of extra maths tuition

Also likely to be evident in many schools are signs that disadvantaged pupils have fallen further behind than their peers, thus widening gaps that existed before lockdown. A report in June from the Education Endowment Foundation states that

‘School closures are likely to reverse progress made to close the gap in the last decade since 2011’.

To address this, the Government has committed £350 million to the National Tutoring Programme which will heavily subsidise schools to buy in extra one-to-one maths support for the pupils who most need it. This is familiar territory for us at the NCETM and Maths Hubs, because a fundamental principle of the teaching for mastery approach to maths teaching is to identify as early as possible when a student has failed to grasp a concept or procedure and intervene to ensure they are ready to move their learning forward with their peers.

Our experience has taught us two important things. First, any additional maths support must be carefully planned to link with the pupils’ timetabled maths lessons, ensuring they have the background knowledge needed to engage with those lessons and deal with new curriculum content. Second, these pupils should not be taken out of their timetabled maths lessons in order to have the one-to-one support. That would, at a stroke, defeat the object of the exercise.

Traditionally, additional tuition support has widened the attainment gap because it has been provided outside the school system by private tutors that only the more affluent can afford. Now is the time to use extra tuition to help narrow attainment gaps.

For a fuller discussion of these points, including references, please see my New academic year message.

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