The 2 things teachers do not have enough of; time or money. Chris Hook enters schools to help year 11’s get better grades in maths. She argues that year 7 is the time for an intervention.
We all know that getting good grades has a significant effect on students’ futures but in pushing for good grades, are we always doing the best to help children understand our subject?
The league tables for secondary schools has a seriously negative effect on learning a subject, because insufficient time is given for students to learn and understand a subject thoroughly enough for them to be able to reach the higher levels skills that we would like them to have. It is great if you are able to teach them from the beginning of their education in secondary school and you have some control over what they learn. This would enable you as a teacher to develop their understanding so that they are able to question, rationalise and analyse the work that they are doing. However, many students in our schools are not that fortunate. Many have innumerable teachers during their secondary school career and this is not conducive to good learning.
I work mostly in secondary schools as a consultant who is often recruited to support and develop teachers work on behaviour management and also to teach Mathematics to improve the grades of the year 11 students. Whilst I love my roles, I feel that the requests for help are often made too late to enable the students to really understand and analyse aspects of the subject. At the latest, intervention needs to start in September to give the teacher a chance to cover as many of the topics as possible – and in only 8 months! I am usually requested with only 5 months left and it is a tall order to get through the whole syllabus in that time. Obviously, intervention needs to start as soon as the problem is identified.
Having worked in 24 schools from London to the Midlands and Norfolk and from Reading to the Isle of Portland and the South East coast, in a variety of roles from teacher trainer, leadership to consultant support to teaching Year 11, I have seen and worked with a huge range of pupils from those with special needs to those with outstanding ability, in several subjects, although I now specialise in Mathematics.
I have taught many year 11 students who have had massive gaps in their learning and in many cases have not had a good grasp of the basics and this hampers their chances of getting what we determine as a “good grade”. I have seen a need for early intervention in many of these schools.
Students learn at differing rates, some will accelerate and others may get left behind. It is extremely difficult for a teacher to cater for this in a large class. Intervention needs to be started much earlier so that time is allowed for students to catch up on what they do not know, that will then allow them to work with new and more difficult areas of the subject. For the more able, intervention can help them to retain interest by offering new challenges and using the skills that they have learned to solve problems or even learn and develop new skills.
Many schools spend time skimming over topics and doing very little in depth work because of time pressures to move on. I think it is better to do more in depth work on a topic than to cover more topics but without the opportunity to consolidate their understanding and having the ability to transfer their skills to other aspects of the subject, particularly in KS3.
We are always looking to have differentiation and pace in our lessons but what does that look like? How important are they to the learning of our subject?
I have visited secondary schools in Hungary and Finland, observing their styles of teaching. In both countries, I thought that the pace was actually quite slow, but all of the children had a good understanding of the work, were able analyse the questions and were able to explain their reasoning to the whole class. By the time they reached their equivalent of our year 11 students, their mathematics was outstanding and way ahead of many schools in the UK. There are fewer pressures on the teachers in those countries, less paperwork and significantly less marking. There was also a much greater emphasis on students taking more responsibility for their own learning. In addition there was great parental support. I do realise that there are schools in the UK that are like that but they are definitely in the minority.
How do we get children in our schools to do that?
Intervention needs to start as early as possible and school funding needs to be directed to do this.
How should we consider constructing intervention?
We seem to keep trying out new things instead of using those things in Mathematics that have been good to develop and promote the subject. We have had a good National Strategy and Curriculum providing resources for teachers. There was an excellent Summer School resource to bridge the gap from primary to secondary school over the summer holidays that often was run by both primary and secondary teachers working together to get the students off to a good start and to help them get to work together in their new school. Both primary and secondary schools had Springboard resources that were available to help children “catch up! on basic skills and there were resources to target level 4 for year 7s (the old level 4) and many more. Somehow along the way we have managed to ditch these resources that must have cost a fortune to produce but they are still needed today. Why are we not using and developing the best of these resources?
Yes, we have the Mastery Schemes of work and quite a few of them but how many of them are really working well? I don’t know the answer to this but I have worked in schools where the Mastery schemes have not worked. In one scheme there were myriads of PowerPoints and the teachers follow them rigorously, but they do not promote a good understanding because the teachers don’t have time to explore the topic in detail, they have to move on to the next one. Another scheme that has not been thought out well enough about the way the testing of the students was being done e.g on the master test the students were asked to measure angles in a triangle where the triangles were no bigger than my small fingernail. Well even I would have had problems with that! I would be interested to know which Mastery courses are considered good and are being used well. To me mastery means practising what has been learned with the proviso that the students have learned and understood what they have learned and then using those skills to solve problems.
I think we could do with some sort of working group that will look at all of these good resources and put them into some kind of coordinated programme to produce an effective secondary curriculum that will support our students that will enable them to enjoy and grasp the subject. Unfortunately teachers in schools do not have time to do this.
By the time I get to teaching Mathematics to most year 11s they have been put off the subject and getting them to enjoy it, understand it and have confidence in their ability to do it, is very hard work. I always wish that I could have had the students for longer to be able to do that even better! However the majority do start to work hard for that time and are usually very appreciative of the time that I have given them, but they have all “done maths” because they have had to, not because they love it and are excited by it.
Why is intervention necessary? There may be a whole range of reasons and it is not always the students who have fallen behind with their work but in some cases, it may be that individual pupils need to be extended too.
It can be difficult to give each pupil enough teacher-time in a regular-sized class of about 30, meaning that some pupils may fall behind or just not get the individual support that they need. In one to one or small group intervention students seem to engage more with the tutor/teacher, in a situation in which they seem more confident to answer questions, even when they feel their answer might not be correct. Learning that is tailored to the individual or group to plug their specific gaps seems to give a higher rate of confidence and engagement than would otherwise be the case in a larger class in which they might struggle.
Intervention offers the opportunity to establish a solid foundation and eradicate misconceptions until such a time that the student or group can return confidently to the classroom.
The most able pupils also need an opportunity to develop and extend their learning in a situation that may not be happen in the larger classroom. This can promote enjoyment and a love of learning of the subject because the individual is being stretched and challenged to think more critically in Mathematics.
I have observed online tutoring in primary schools and although, in my opinion, it is a good way of supporting pupils I believe that a teacher/tutor working in the school is a better way forward. Having timetabled a one-to -one tutor working in a secondary school, I have seen first-hand the impact that this tutor has had on the students. They form a relationship with the tutor and connect with him/her at other times during the school day and this all helps to develop a greater confidence and enthusiasm for the subject and a connection with it.
Intervention in the secondary school needs to start with the year 7 as they transfer from primary school. SATs results are not always a clear indication of Mathematical ability, particularly if the children have not been taught by a Maths specialist. Also the summer holidays have a bit of a negative impact on children’s ability to remember some of the work that they have done previously.
Schools need to start the year 7 with critical thinking lessons to get them to begin to develop a reasoning approach to Maths because Maths is not just about algorithms but also about how to use them to solve problems. The students lacking in basic skills need to be targeted as soon as they arrive at secondary school, if not during the Summer holiday.
Summer Schools are a good way of helping children settle into the new school, form relationships with other pupils and some of the teaching staff, with time to have fun and enjoy Mathematics as well as improving necessary skills.
A programme of intervention, with a student booklet in which they can work, followed by some testing to check on progress could be organised. This needs to be followed up by recommendations for the next stage of intervention.
I am a firm believer that intervention sessions should not come out of their subject lesson, as this is defeating the object and putting students further behind in the work in their own subjects and I also believe that this is true for English. If we are to get children to be capable learners across the board these two subjects underpin all of the curriculum in schools and good learning in both will have a “knock on effect” for all subjects. This needs to be carried on into year 8 and beyond if necessary and perhaps intervention sessions after school. In some schools there is an enrichment or co-curricular time during the course of a school week that could also be used for intervention for year 7s as well as for year 11 students.
Schools could also have a numeracy passport that has to be completed/passed by the end of the year in order for them to be able to progress. There are other ways of doing this, for example, a small group could be run as an intervention group within mathematics lessons, where the scheme of work is not run but the intervention programme is used instead.
A lot is dependent on staffing allocation within the school. Serious decisions would have to made to facilitate this if the school is determined to make an impact on learners to improve Maths (and English).
In some stage of their school career, a numeracy across the curriculum will also have great benefits for all subjects and students will start to be able to see the links.
If all this were to happen in schools, hopefully, there would not be a need for intervention as late as year 11!
I know that I have made a difference to the lives of all the students that I have taught because their grades have all improved and this has given them opportunities to move on to their choices for further education, but I will never feel that I have been able to do enough to help them develop the love that I have of the subject and the challenges that it offers.
The students always become “my students” wherever I work and I cannot wait to see their results when they are released in August.