Are we tackling the academic continuity in maths as much as we are trying to tackle pastoral transition between primary and secondary?

This year I was asked to be part of a Strategic School Improvement Fund Project focussing on improving maths outcomes in Blackpool and the surrounding districts. Blackpool is consistently part of a cluster of “under-performing” areas at GCSE level. There are many reasons for this – the problems that come with living in a coastal area of deprivation are well documented. It doesn’t get much tougher than Blackpool in terms of challenge but let’s not forget that 90% of the pupils and families we come across are lovely people, as are the staff that work so hard to provide a fantastic education. High proportions of disadvantaged pupils in a coastal town make it that much harder to attain respectable outcomes at GCSE, as well as the problems that come with recruitment and retaining teachers. You only really arrive in Blackpool if you plan to go to Blackpool – it has a transient population due to it’s seasonal nature. Blackpool in summer is an entirely different town compared to Blackpool in winter.

SSIF Project Overview

The £750,000 project (find us at @p4ssionform4ths on Twitter) is headed up by the quite brilliant Tony Nicholson – National Leader in Education (NLE) and Chief Executive of Fylde Coast Academy Trust (FCAT) – who, along with Tim Freeman, Senior Lead at Blackpool Sixth Form and Teaching School Director meet regularly with our Strategic Overview Team consisting of leaders of primary and secondary schools in the local area. The funding was gained through a bid from the Fylde Coast Teaching School Alliance in collaboration with the Blackpool School Improvement Board. I am seconded one day a week to be part of the delivery team – a set of lead primary and secondary maths specialists in the area – and I also drive the Twitter feed. We decided to narrow the focus to improve practice between year 5 and 8 rather than a more general “improve maths outcomes at GCSE.”

The SSIF project has a main objective to be a “self-improving, self-sustaining all-through maths network, which impacts on pupils learning” through:

  • Secondary schools building on KS2 progress;
  • Shared understanding of the curriculum, teaching and learning;
  • Skilling teachers to be competent at maths and delivering maths pedagogy;
  • Specialist maths leaders having the skills to drive the maths agenda through NPQML and NPQSL courses;
  • Self-sustaining dynamic maths network;
  • Long term improvement in pupil achievement in maths.

It seemed fitting that the EEF guidance report on Improving Mathematics in Key Stage 2 and 3 was released towards the start of our project, who’s recommendations aligned with our early vision.

EEF poster

Even more recently relseased (23rd March 2018) is this Evidence Review from the EEF on Improving Mathematics in Key Stage 2 and 3.

What can you learn from our project?

  1. Place larger value on increasing communication between primary and secondary teachers – we developed “families” consisting of a number of primaries and a secondary school, not necessarily feeders, that already existed as part of the Blackpool Improvement Board. You may want to do this differently and focus on the feeder primaries and destination secondary schools. We, as the delivery team, had the job of getting into schools as part of non-judgemental visits into classrooms to see what kind of practice was happening on the ground. What is apparent is that pedagogy at some primaries is worlds apart from secondary schools. Some primaries are using bar models, some secondary schools have never heard of it. Some secondary schools are not using any data from primary school and are just re-teaching what has been covered at primary level. Primary schools have mixed attainment with impactful TA support that feed into secondary schools that set immediately. Secondary schools please take note – there is LOTS of excellent work going on in primaries. Go and have a look – you’ll be amazed! Tony, our leader on this project, got all of the Headteachers and leaders of maths in the area into one room and gave them a clear idea of what we wanted from schools moving forward – we got 100% buy in from these leaders.
  2. Create opportunities for *teachers* of year 7 and 8 to meet with teachers of year 5 and 6. In our families, we facilitated meetings at a central location one night after school for teachers of the different key stages to meet, bring books, SAT papers and open a dialogue. We called this our cross-phase orientation. This has been extremely valuable for both cross-phases as it opens up a dialogue about concerns, improvements, pedagogy and standards. Exercises like “guess the year group” were played when primary school books were left open for viewing. Secondary school teachers were amazed that some of their estimates were way off and that the standard of year 4 maths was much higher than they had anticipated. Are we under-estimating our year 7s and placing too much emphasis on repetition? Yes, it is important to repeat key skills throughout their maths journey but let’s begin teaching year 7 from where they are, not from the lower levels we previously may have expected them to be or making assumptions just so that the children in front of us fit our current scheme of work. You can get an account for Analyse School Performance, where you can access a KS2 breakdown of your cohort by mathematical strand, gender, pupil premium etc. Use this data to adapt your scheme of work in year 7 based on student needs from year 6. This will change each year – so should your first half term’s scheme of work.
  3. Pedagogy continuity over pedagogy transition –  in year 7, do you know which representations have been used to introduce the different topics in year 4 to year 6? Are you aware of which types of problems students are asked to solve in the problem solving and reasoning SAT papers? What is bar modelling and how is it used in primary school? Which physical and interactive manipulatives are used at primary school and can you continue this? Are you aware of the concrete, pictorial, abstract model? Do you not do this because you don’t know how? Are you just going straight to the abstract? Are your teaching methods consistent and conducive to those from your feeder primaries? How do you know? Learning may be accelerated if these methods are adopted and gradually faded into the more abstract. This concreteness fading is really important, particularly for our lower attaining pupils. Be more open minded towards the excellent work going on in primaries.
  4. Provide opportunities to develop subject knowledge of non-specialists/less experienced teachers We developed a Maths Immersion Week where by over 20 local non-specialist teachers were immersed in a full week off timetable of mathematical pedagogy of key topics such as percentages, fractions, algebra, ratio and proportion, bar modelling and mastery approaches to name a few. There will be teachers at all levels who require a lot of support due to their subject knowledge. This may mean that they don’t have the confidence to carry out problem solving at the top end of their key stage or lack the insight of an experienced maths teacher on which worked examples to provide, resources to use and misconceptions that students may hold. Many primary school teachers do not have a maths degree and some may need support from secondary school practitioners. How can we do this? Primary teachers – are you bold enough to admit when you need support? Nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Termly/half termly meetings covering key topics and how they are going to be introduced and continued through the key stages;
  • This can be done by email for the time-poor teacher with pictures of representations or even pupil work being shared – let’s get cross-phase conversations going and make this normal weekly/fortnightly practice.
  • Provide “resource packs” for different topics or help to formulate a detailed scheme of work that includes examples, misconceptions, resources, purposeful practice, assessments and different representations. Take a look at these resource packs from Jo Morgan’s – there are a lot for year 6;
  • Cross-phase observations are really valuable, “come and have a look at how I teach addition of fractions on Tuesday period 1 next week with year 5”;
  • Providing each other with pedagogical approaches to try out cross-phase such as bar modelling or using Cuisenaire rods then talking about what did/didn’t work;
  • Co-planning a unit together to carry out after the SAT exams – this will keep the focus on maths at a time when maths can often be put on the back burner. Secondary teachers can sometimes be more time-rich time to support primaries once year 11 have left.

The idea of key stages is damaging. Maths is one long road where students all start on the same starting line but end up at different points along that road at different times. Let’s keep it as one road as much as possible. The idea that students have to change to a completely different road after the first 7 years means that we are having to start that journey again in a lot of cases when that really doesn’t need to be the case. Cross-phase communication is key.  Can we utilise our bright spots and experienced teachers more to support those less experienced teachers? Continuity and an awareness of what comes before and what comes after is really important for us. Together, we can help bridge the academic transition chasm in maths that lies between primary and secondary.

Where next for the project?

Having recently been visited and approved by the DfE, we are now in stage 4 – “Immersion” – primary and secondary schools working together to adopt a pre-defined mastery approach to teaching maths. We are dispelling mastery myths in the area and encouraging a “depth over breadth” curriculum model.

The delivery team are facilitating cross-phase visits between primary and secondary schools.

Our curriculum team is developing an end of year 6 algebra 4 week scheme of learning.

Local secondary schools will receive bar modelling and algebra tile training ready for the next academic year.

Schools will be encouraged to transfer this model of communication to their feeder schools and ensure the values of the project live on for the years to come.

Further reading/recommendations from me

Please have a look at this 9 minute video demonstration from Mark McCourt’s Complete Maths. Incredible for creating synergy and a consistent, high quality approach to teaching maths from year 1 to year 13.

Mastery section on NCETM

NCETM podcast on continuity of teaching fractions between year 5 and year 8.

Ed Southall’s blog – Year 7 maths – A missed opportunity?

Alex Quigley’s blog on “The Reading Gap” between primary and secondary.

Bruno Reddy’s Design Your Own Mastery Curriculum in Maths and his Mastery Maths Forum provides excellent starting points to learn from others.

“You’ve never seen the GCSE maths curriculum like this before” – blog from Will Emeny breaking down the connectedness of 14 key topics in maths.


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