We must learn from the National Numeracy Strategy—and stop academisationby Andrew King / March 22, 2016 / Leave a comment
18?! If only tackling the problem of innumerate Britain was as simple as Osborne’s political rhetoric makes it sound. But if making maths compulsory up to age of 18 is the wrong answer to the question, what is the right one? I want to be clear that as a headteacher, former maths inspector and author of children’s books on mathematics, I am all for improving standards in maths—and not just for the few. A good understanding of key mathematical ideas is, and will continue to be, essential for those who want to function successfully in modern society.
Making maths compulsory to 18 is not one of Osborne’s greatest ideas. First, there are the practical issues of finding enough teachers to deliver on this and making sure that they have the right skills and motivation. Plus, making all young adults want to study maths to 18 will be a substantial task to say the least, when a significant proportion of them (however misguidedly) don’t want to see another numeral again. Many will hope they will soon see the back of “double maths” for ever. So, what is the answer?
Memories are short and what many people have forgotten is that we did have a very effective strategy for tackling innumeracy not too long ago: the National Numeracy Strategy. Of course it is politically tainted by the fact that it was a central part of New Labour’s “Education, Education, Education” project, plus it made significant use of local authority structures, so is not particularly fashionable at the moment. Nevertheless, the Strategy was demonstrably effective, improved the quality of teaching and ultimately raised standards.
When I first started working across a number of schools as an advisory teacher in 1995 I was staggered at the variability of practice in maths: yes, there were teachers doing amazing things, but there was also a significant number of teachers whose performance was poor and whose and maths lessons were simply about giving out work books and text books. Very often there didn’t appear to be any teaching actually taking place. I even remember one infant school that only taught maths once a week as it was “very difficult for little children!”
Amongst other things the NNS included an outline of expected teaching in mathematics for all pupils from Reception (where they are aged four) to Year 6 (where they are aged 11). In the end it did establish an expected way of teaching, which involved the “Numeracy Hour,” as it became known. This meant maths lessons incorporated the practise of key number facts, whole class teaching, independent work and a review of the learning in the lesson in a “plenary” phase.
Detailed high quality training was provided through numeracy consultants appointed by local authorities, and was given to inspectors, headteachers, teachers and teaching assistants. It cascaded to every school in the country. It was almost uncomfortably identikit—I still remember delivering an early session to headteachers and one of the NNS regional leads monitoring the extent that I stuck to the prepared training script!
Leadership of the Strategy was tightly and determinedly controlled by the inspirational Anita Straker. Other national education bodies aligned with it: assessment, testing and curriculum bodies all did. Crucially, Ofsted had a specific remit to judge the extent to which numeracy had been effectively implemented in schools in every inspection.
Within a period of about four years I saw a transformation in the quality of maths teaching. The NNS gave schools a clear understanding of what it could and should look like. It enabled teaching ideas and strategies to be shared and spread quickly. It set a level of expectations.
Of course, having been so involved in the NNS I might be accused of a bad case of rose tinted spectacles here. However, independent evaluations support my anecdotal experience. The TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) 2007 report said “England’s mathematics performance showed a large rise between 1995 and 2003 with continued improvement from 2003 to 2007. No European country outperformed England in any of the four assessments, and nor did the United States or Australia’ and this was echoed in other independent evaluations and Ofsted’s own evaluation from 2008.”
So, what lessons can we learn from the NNS if we are to go into battle against “innumerate Britain?” There are certainly no quick fixes. I fear that our educational landscape is now so fragmented with academisation (and the concomitant freedom not to follow the national curriculum) and the patchy and variable quality of Teaching Schools, that the re-creation of something similar to the NNS and on that scale is now lost. Academisation is clearly set to continue into the future, as Osborne made clear in his Budget last week.
Nevertheless, if we are serious about making a difference then what is needed is a sustained national political commitment. We need the alignment of key national bodies; high quality teaching resources; early intervention in primary education (forget “18,” the answer is more likely to be “three”) and, most fundamentally, a high quality training programme for all teachers.