I’ve spent a good few hours this weekend marking Level 4-6 SATs papers that our year 7s did as end of year exams.
As I was marking, I found depressing patterns amongst the papers. Without looking at the name on the front, I could tell you whether the paper was from a kid in my top set , or a kid in my middle set based on just a couple of questions.
These weren’t the level 5 and 6 questions at the back of the paper. The children did surprisingly similarly on those.
The difference was on questions like these:
This answer makes me want to bang my head against a brick wall.
The kids’ lack of number sense and understanding of operations is scary – and scarily easy to miss. They got the magic level 4 in year 6. They’re continuing to progress in year 7 in line with targets. They can do the woolier parts of the curriculum like data handling, and they have a modicum of logic. This carries them through. They’re not flagged up. As far as the government, the school, and parents are concerned, these kids are good enough at maths.
The kids unstable foundations in arithmetic will probably plague them for the rest of their school days. They’ll correctly apply an algorithm in algebra until they encounter a negative number when they’ll freeze. Their confusion over times tables means they’ll always utter “I hate fractions”, but they’ll give finding the LCM a go, and get enough answers correct to escape special attention. They will forever confuse perimeter and area, but the teacher will put it down to silly mistake in the test and move on. They’ve got so much material they need to cover before Easter!
Always moving on, moving on, moving on. Never mastering the mathematics properly.
Why? Because the system at my school is set up for that to be the case.
Take a look at the expensive market-leading textbooks my school spent thousands on this year. They dictate our scheme of work but are horrifically sequenced, jumping from topic to topic. The unit on data handling I’m due to teach the kids next goes like this: a lesson on pie charts, a lesson on averages, a lesson on questionnaires, a lesson on probability. Then – oooh kids, data’s over for now, it’s time for some shape and space!
The obsession with progress and levels means it’s a death trap to be teaching basic numeracy when an SLT member might be around: “why are you teaching level 4 work when they’re predicted level 5s?”
Time spent cementing the basics is considered strange by colleagues. Those SATS type questions don’t come up in the GCSE. Just teach them how to draw a box plot under a cumulative frequency graph. That’s an easy few marks that even Tabitha can manage.
There is no focus on mastery. Got over half? That’s OK. It’ll do. We’ve got to move on to the next topic anyway.
Pleasingly, the tide seems to be turning. Michael Wilshaw praised block by block maths teaching. ARK’s maths mastery pilot is the envy of many a maths teacher I speak to nowadays. There is hope. But ultimately, too many children are still being fobbed off with the “good enough” approach. That’s not right. For me, the tide can’t turn fast enough.