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Building the Foundations of Trust

This year I was handed one of the biggest challenges in my career. I was given, in January of their Year 11, a foundation maths group and asked to get 100% 1-9. Their mock grades were Us. Their biweekly assessment grades (we called these mini mocks) were Us. They hated maths, school, and anyone that tried to tell them different. They had just been told they were going to sit foundation tier and therefore their chances of a passing (4/5) grade were almost nothing. And I had just broken my arm, leaving me unable to write. Bring it on!

How did I cope?
I started by talking to them and being a human being. I explained that they would have to be patient with my writing, that I would need a scribe, and that if we worked together they would get a grade in their next mini mock. I didn’t promise them the earth, just a grade. A 1, instead of a U. Surprisingly, this worked. Or at least, it worked enough to get them to work a bit. So we did some basics as a starter. I was very careful to explain why the starter was a different topic to the main lesson (that it was a mini topic from their next mini mock revision list that we could keep reviewing until the test) and why we would keep doing the same (well, similar – numbers changing) questions for a week for the starter. They enjoyed the fact that lesson after lesson they could see they were getting better at the starter. For a lot of these students, they hadn’t ever really felt like they could get better at something, so that positive feedback of effort = success really let them build up some confidence.

Because of my broken arm, I had to get them up to the board and writing for me. This worked fantastically well for the students who really didn’t want to be there doing “actual work”. They came up to the board, did the scribing and started to really develop their maths, because I literally couldn’t write, so they had to get what I was saying and think about what they were writing on the board and why.

The next mini mock rolled around and allof the students who had worked with me – as opposed to sitting at the back and ignoring me as much as possible – got at least a grade 1. They were really starting to see their effort pay off.

How did I succeed?
Having started the ball rolling, I set weekly tests. Friday would either be a Year 11 mini mock (all the groups had this) or 15-30 minute my class only test with little prizes for getting over 50% on them. They loved it. They loved the chance to beat other people and the chance to earn a rubbish little chocolate. The big thing they loved was that the goal was clear. They knew when they’d get over 50% they’d succeeded. So I took this and applied it to the mini mocks. I gave them rough grade boundaries that I wrote on the board during the test. They knew how many marks they needed to get where they wanted to be. After that test, students were attempting more questions than before, because they knew just how much they needed to do for the grade they wanted. We got some 2s that test. The students could see that it was working. Their trust in me had paid off.

My next step was to thoroughly read the examiners’ report for the three foundation tier papers from last year and to create a list of common issues to identify. I shared these with my students, as I went through the topics in the run up to the exam.

Finally, I gave them a huge (98 page) work booklet from piximaths and they worked independently in the last month. I guided them towards topics, but ultimately, they focussed on what the weekly testing had shown them they needed. This left me able to work with them in small groups of 2-3 on specific topics that those particular students needed to move them on. They’ve told me they’re actually looking forward to the exam and the chance to show what they know. Fingers crossed.

Key takeaways:

  1. Tell your students why you’re doing what you’re doing.
  2. Tell them you will work with them for their goals.
  3. Read the examiners report(s) and share your takeaways with your students.
  4. Provide chances for students to regularly see that hard work pays off.
  5. Show them how far they’ve come – remind them of the difference their effort has made.

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The author

Caroline is a KS3 Coordinator for Mathematics at an inner London all-girls secondary school. She completed her masters focussing on improving the attainment of white British working class students in mathematics. Caroline became a teacher 5 years ago and has taught across the age spectrum from KS3 to KS5 mathematics, as well as KS5 economics. She is currently working on her Chartered Teacher certification through the Chartered College of Teaching and is becoming a regular attendee at conferences this year. She blogs about her experiences of teaching and of education research at

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