Tag Archive | Curriculum

Level Playing Field – the Problem with Levels

Spirit level

As we move to the new primary maths curriculum, the old NC levels no longer apply but we are still waiting to find out what will replace them under the new assessment arrangements which have not yet been finalised.

I suspect many primary schools will continue to use the levels for the purposes of tracking children across the school or key stage.  Whilst I agree that it’s important to track children’s progress in some way over time, over the last few years I have had increasing misgivings about the way the NC levels are used to do this.  I feel there are several problems with this and I’d like to outline some of them here.

How we assess

QCA tests are commonly used to assess children at the end of a school year, and often at other points in the year as well.  Others use other commercially published assessments.  My problem with these is that in my experience, they are not reliable.  As a maths leader, I got to know the year groups where we could expect rapid progress (according to the tests) and those where progress would be much slower and this often remained the same year on year, regardless of which teachers were in those year groups.  As a class teacher, I got to know the tests that were likely to make my children look good and those that weren’t.  I like to think that I bore this in mind in using my teacher judgement to moderate the results from the tests but see my later point about performance management.

To be fair, most schools don’t rely completely on test results and teacher judgement is used as well.  The problem with this is that it takes a lot of experience to really know inside out what children ought to be able to do to achieve a particular level, let alone then knowing which sub-level to give.  In theory, APP should have helped with this, but most systems are cumbersome to use and often wrongly used – just because I can find evidence in a child’s book that he or she has been adding 3 digit numbers, does not mean that they are secure in this.

Who does the assessment

In  most cases, assessment is done by the class or group teacher.  In theory, this is great.  They are the person best placed to know what the child can really do, to be aware that a bad performance on a test is not typical, for example.  They are in a position to see which aspects of maths children are secure on and which they need to revisit.  However, in many cases, the progress of children in a teacher’s class or group contributes to their performance management targets, and now with performance related pay, the stakes are even higher.  Added to this, in the current educational climate, is the ever present threat of capability procedures  for those whose children’s progress dips.  I do believe that most teachers try to act with integrity but the high stakes attached to progress but huge pressure on them to report optimistically.  Unfortunately too, there are definitely teachers who knowingly play the system.  In one school I worked in, a recently appointed class teacher discovered from his TA that the previous teacher had always gone over tests with the children just before they took them.  The poor TA, herself fairly new, had assumed this was common practice!

The precision to which we track

When levels were first introduced, they were meant to give an overview of what should be expected of average children at certain stages.  So the components of level 2 were those which an average 7 year old would be able to do.  (Later these average expectations somehow became minimum expectations, but that’s a whole other blog!)  However, this made tracking progress across key stages difficult because children would typically take 2 years to move up a whole level.  So sub-levels were introduced and APS points.  Many primary schools now use these APS points to track progress termly but levels were never intended to track progress at this level of precision.  We simply can’t measure progress precisely in the way that we measure, say length precisely.  There may be some justification for comparing the progress of different cohorts from the end of KS1 to the end of KS2 because at least here we are broadly speaking comparing progress with similar start and end points.  But comparing how much progress one set of children have made in a single term of Year 2 against the progress another set of children have made in the same term in Year 3 is just not valid, in my opinion.  When I was in Year 6, I knew that if children came up to me at the start of the year with a 3A, I had a fighting chance of getting them to level 5 by May, progress of at least 4 sub-levels.  It would be very unusual for a Year 3 teacher to move a child at 1A at the start of the year to level 3 by the end of they year, and I would imagine it only happens very rarely.  Yet, we make judgements about teachers based on comparing situations like this.  From experience, I feel that level 2 is probably the level that takes the longest to move through.  The jump from a 2C to a 3C in terms of conceptual understanding and skills is huge.  Is it any wonder then that there is typically a dip in progress in Year 3 where the majority of children will be in the process of moving through level 2?

Life after Levels

I’m aware that I’m putting forward lots of problems about tracking progress using levels without really suggesting a solution.  I’d suggest that any way of tracking progress term by term or even year by year is bound to be fraught with problems.  Some have suggested that with the new curriculum we use a system similar to that currently used in Early Years, where children are judged to be Emerging, Expected or Exceeding the expected standards for each year group, but many of the problems outlined above would probably still apply.  All I would urge is that any system of tracking progress using data is treated with great caution.  The removal of the high stakes involved might also help teachers make more carefully considered judgements.


New for Old – Introducing the new Primary Maths Curriculum

New curriculum resource tool

I’ve already blogged about some of my hopes and fears for the new curriculum here.  In this blog, I want to think more particularly about introducing the curriculum to schools and suggest some useful resources.

It’s important to plan the change carefully and make sure teachers are well prepared.  As the KS2 assessment arrangements don’t change until 2016, our current Years 3 and 4 will be the first to be assessed under the new curriculum at the end of KS2.  The expectations for them in some areas will be higher and it may well be that schools choose to start teaching at least some of the new content this year so that there is less for these children to catch up in Years 5 and 6.  This is particularly true in the areas of written calculations and fractions.  Similarly in KS1, the tests and reporting arrangements will remain the same until 2016.  This means that from September 2014, Years 2 and 6 should still continue to be taught using the current curriculum but all other year groups will need to move to the new curriculum.

Expectations for fluency with number facts and calculation methods will be raised and it may well be worth tackling this with some whole school initiatives.  Some schools are choosing to give an extra 10-20 minutes each day to focus on this in particular, outside of the maths lesson, rather in the way that phonics is often taught discretely.  For number bonds and tables, it would be well worth listing exactly which facts your school expects children to learn in each year group and sharing this with parents.  It’s also worth tracking the facts that children know so that children who are falling behind in learning these can be given extra support.  It would be good to discuss as a staff just what you all understand by ‘rapid recall’ of facts.  You may find that some teachers feel children know their two times tables if they can chant the table, whereas others would expect them to be able to answer mixed 2 times tables questions, answering 20-30 or more in a minute.  I have suggested some ideas and resources for teaching number facts and tables here.

The NCTM has a growing library of resources to support introducing the new curriculum.  In particular, their Resource Tool  could be a useful starting point.  So far, only material for Years 5 and 6 have been added, but we are promised other year groups’ material before too long.  For each year group, the content has been divided into several different strands.  Selecting a particular strand and year group and choosing ‘Show Selection’ brings up the information below the tool.  So for each of strand and year group, there is information on subject knowledge, connections (to content in other year groups, to other mathematical topics and to other subject areas), articles about good practice in teaching that strand, some suggested activities that could be used in teaching it, exemplification of the expectations and videos that support aspects of the strand.

The subject knowledge resources may be particularly useful for teachers in UKS2 where raised expectations may mean that they need a refresher in eg. calculating with fractions.


For more information about the new curriculum and some resources which might prove helpful when introducing it, my New Curriculum Pinterest board may be helpful.  For subject leaders or senior leaders based in the Midlands, you may be interested in a course I am running next month on preparing for the new curriculum.  I have lots of ideas and resources to share!

Only Connect – The Importance of Making Connections in Medium Term Planning

Connections puzzle

Over the holidays, many teachers will be sitting down to make medium term plans for their maths lessons.  This might be for the entire time or it might only be for a block of learning, perhaps two or three weeks, but I’d hope that they will be giving some thought as to what the learning will look like over the course of the whole term.  They’ll be looking at assessment records or notes they’ve written on their weekly plans or elsewhere to see what the priorities are.  They’ll be looking at the objectives for the year or for the next steps in learning and making sure there’ll be opportunities to visit these during the term.  For Year 6 teachers, with the SATs in May drawing ever closer, there’ll probably be a particular urgency and focus on the gaps that need to be plugged before Easter.

Medium term planning is important in Maths.  It has to be flexible.  Even for a very experienced teacher, each class is different and some topics will end up not needing as long as we planned, whilst others will need longer or will need revisiting.  Just like our weekly plans, our medium term plans should be working documents which regularly get annotated and highlighted throughout the term.  However flexible it is though, it needs to be well thought through to ensure coverage of all the important topics and that will probably mean building in some contingency time, just in case several topics take longer than we imagined.

In recent years I have often been involved in monitoring planning in different schools – this is usually weekly planning rather than medium term planning, but usually I’ll be looking at several weeks at a time.   Plans vary enormously in the amount of detail they give, and there are teachers whose plans give very little detail who manage to teach great lessons, and others who dot every i and cross every t but whose lessons are not so sparkling.  By and large they are thoughtful and thorough and it’s clear that teachers are on the whole familiar with what their children already know and what they need to learn next.  One thing that does concern me, however, is that over the last few years, I have increasingly seen a rather ‘scatter gun’ approach to planning: a lesson or two on one topic, another lesson or two on another topic and then perhaps a quick problem solving lesson on Friday.  I believe there are two main reasons for this.  The first reason is the way the renewed framework which was introduced in 2006 divides into blocks of learning meant to last for 2-3 weeks.  In each block there is a whole plethora of possible material, and I don’t think it was ever the intention that anyone would try to teach all of this in such a short period of time, but there was such a lot there, that it was common for teachers to try to teach far too much far too quickly.  The second reason I believe is the increasing pressure from Ofsted that so many schools are feeling now.  I know there’s lots of debate about progress in lessons currently, but whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it has made many teachers feel they need to teach something new every lesson.  It’s relatively easy to show progress within the lesson when you introduce something new – at the beginning of the lesson, most children know nothing about it, at the end they do.  Whether they will remember anything about it next week, let alone tomorrow, if we don’t then revisit it, is much more open to question.

I really believe we need to slow things down.  I’m not suggesting individual lessons should lack pace (although there’s possibly a debate to be had about that too), but that we should plan sustained periods of time where we focus on one topic or a few very closely related topics.  Within that period of time, our children can certainly make progress within that topic, but each new step will be connected to a very recent one, and there will be time for new skills to be practised and consolidated.

As well as taking longer over topics, our medium term planning should be exploiting the natural links between different mathematical ideas and topics.  So, for instance, it makes sense to teach finding fractions of amounts soon after work on division, so that children naturally see how the two things connect, and can further practise their division procedures with fractions problems.  If you haven’t seen it before, take a look at the picture at the top of this blog and try to work out what comes next.  Unless you see the connection between the symbols, it’s pretty hard to do (if you’re still struggling, imagine a mirror line drawn vertically through the middle of each one).  Once you see the connection, it’s easy.  Similarly, we can make things much more difficult than they need to be for our children if we don’t exploit the natural connections between different mathematical ideas.

So if you’re sitting down to do some medium term planning over the holidays, think about the connections you can make.  Think about giving children time to really get to grips with a topic.  If it’s possible, also think about the connections that can be made with other curricular areas.  Would your technology topic give opportunities for weighing or measuring using different scales?  Could your geography topic give opportunities for using negative numbers in context when comparing temperatures or comparing large numbers when looking at populations?  Could the children show some of the information from their history topic using their newly acquired data handling skills?  Don’t force it, try to make the contexts as real as possible, but teachers tend to have great imaginations so I’m sure you’ll find some creative connections.

In with the New – The New Primary Maths Curriculum

New curriculum main aims

Like it or loathe it, the time is coming when it will be impossible to ignore the new curriculum (unless of course you teach in an academy).  Year 6 will have another year to continue with the old curriculum but other year groups need to start teaching from it from next September.

I am currently taking the NCETM Professional Development Lead Support course (which I would so far highly recommend) and had my first residential training at the end of last week.  In the main I found this somewhat reassuring.  I am sure that Michael Gove had a heavy influence in determining much of the content and in particular the emphasis on the aim of fluency with recalling facts and using procedures, and generally higher expectations by the end of the primary years.  Despite this, the three overarching aims are difficult to argue with, focusing on fluency, reasoning and problem solving.  The NCETM approach is to emphasise that fluency can only be achieved, and should only be achieved by building on a foundation of good conceptual understanding.  Their training and the training that we in turn will be passing onto schools explores the key role that representation and the use of concrete apparatus has in building up this conceptual understanding.  They are also keen to encourage teachers to make connections between different mathematical ideas in their teaching.

My worry is about how well this message will be conveyed to schools.  I have had two years of training as a Primary Maths Specialist, another year of work towards my masters in primary maths education, training as a Numbers Count teacher and have done lots of reading and research in addition to this.  I understand the importance of representation and of making connections.  I have seen the damage that can be done when children are moved too quickly to working with abstract mathematical procedures before they have been able to build up their conceptual understanding to support this.  I have experienced those wonderful ‘light bulb’ moments with KS2 children who have fallen well behind and lost all confidence in their mathematical ability, but given the chance to step back a little and revisit concepts of place value or calculation using concrete apparatus, suddenly see how it works.  Many of my colleagues however have not had these opportunities.  I’ve learned so much from the high quality professional development I’ve received in the last few years and could probably fill at least a year’s worth of weekly staff meetings by sharing all of this.

In most schools, professional development time is very limited.  Maths has to vie with many other subjects and priorities for staff meeting and Teacher day time.  Courses can be expensive and require teachers to be covered which adds to the expense, and budgets are limited.  In my opinion, however, it is good quality professional development which has the potential to make a huge difference to the quality of teaching and learning in schools.  If even half the time and money which is currently spent on inspecting, monitoring, evaluating, tracking data and gathering evidence was spent instead on good quality CPD, I believe the impact would be incredible.

The introduction of the new curriculum could be a great opportunity for schools to revisit their teaching approaches, to ensure teachers are clear about progression and route ways, to explore the range of concrete apparatus and representations which will support conceptual understanding, to explore the links between different mathematical ideas and to share approaches and ideas.  But this will require significant investment of time and money.  I suspect, however that many schools will not find the resources to do this and instead the new curriculum will be presented as a list of requirements with the result that many teachers will feel under pressure to move children on too quickly, which could lead to even less conceptual understanding.

In his (always helpful) blog yesterday, Derek Haylock also made the very important point that the format of the new assessments (currently being developed) will have a great influence on what is actually taught in schools.  Will these assess children’s understanding of underlying concepts, their ability to reason mathematically, their ability to apply their skills to problems?  Or will they focus on assessing the children’s ability to use mathematical procedures fluently?

For more information about the new curriculum and some resources which might prove helpful when introducing it, my New Curriculum Pinterest board may be helpful.