Levelling the Playing Field

Having taught Maths at GCSE level for 14 years I have been used to a variety of exam boards, changing curriculums and the introduction, and removal, of coursework. 

Throughout that time there was one constant, and that was the principle that each student had their performance turned into a solitary letter (I know it’s now a number but the same basis still applies) at the end of the course.

Because the age of 16 still represents a point in education where the number of options available suddenly multiplies, this makes complete sense and has a purpose in the movement on to the next step. But what about younger students?

The KS2 SATs now sit in place, and are backed up by a new primary curriculum that promises to improve standards across the board. The big difference here is that students no longer receive a ‘level’ at this point, instead just the acknowledgement of whether they have reached the ‘expected age’ standard or not. 

This comes nearly 10 years after the withdrawal of the KS3 SATs, and now means that there is no central grading system for students until the GCSE process begins in earnest, normally in year 9 or 10. 

So what is this achieving? And does it stand up as a positive move?

Well, the first question will be answered very differently depending upon who you ask. Lots of parents and teachers have been left scratching their heads and naturally looking for a clear message of where their child sits at a given time. In addition students have found that they are being left empty handed when asking ‘what level am I?’ 

Doesn’t sound like a good place to be, but then all dramatic changes, or shifts, in education don’t settle immediately. So, is it a positive move?

Obviously I can only speak for myself. However, as a head of department working in a middle school I am in the fortunate position of seeing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture in relation to the SATs and also the ‘pre-GCSE’ years. I now feel that I can answer that question with a sense of experience, and not just instinct.

Assessments that come with a level/grade serve only one real purpose and that is to do with a students ranking. 

For example, a student falling one mark above the expected standard this week (KS2 SATs) may have very good numeracy skills but struggle with reasoning and application in other areas. On the other hand there will probably be a student one mark higher who has a good basic understanding in all areas, but no particular strength in one area. 

The result? They both have a ‘tick’ against the expected standard, and in old money would be labelled with the same level. 

The reality? They have very differing strengths, and should be looking at very different targets for improvement. The removal of a level to label them means that the focus can now be placed on looking deeper at those strengths, and particularly, areas for improvement. 

I asked whether it is a positive change and I am in no doubts that the answer is a yes. The challenge now is to ensure that every parent, teacher and pupil is shown how this change allows for each student (and parent) to be far better informed about their performance. 


Maths is Fun

This would appear to be a very contentious statement, with many people suggesting that in fact Maths is anything but fun.

Possibly the clearest suggestion I’ve heard is that Maths is the ‘marmite subject’. That would account for those that enjoy Maths being accompanied in lessons by those that would like to be anywhere else.

Allow me to give you two examples:

1) I have just had the pleasure of being served by an ex-student who uttered that phrase “the Maths is fun”. Admittedly, he is going to be studying Maths at university. 

2) Then there are those that can’t get on with Maths, no matter how hard they apply themselves, but appreciate the effort that you need to put in.

There are many more of the second type of student in our schools. That’s not a bad thing of course because it demonstrates that we are fortunate to be working with students who will try and try.

However, there is a potential pitfall here and it comes in the form of how those students experience the delivery of Maths in the classroom. We have all given up on something at some point (exercise, dieting, saving money etc.) and often that is because it seems so hard or something that is beyond us. This is how so many students feel about Maths, and therefore it is not a surprise when they ‘give up’.

So how do we ensure that this doesn’t happen? Is it as simple as making lessons fun?

Yes and no. Fun is a very broad term that can be misinterpreted. Making a lesson fun is easy. Making a week of lessons fun is fairly straightforward, but continuing that throughout the school year, and then into the next year is very difficult. 

I am, of course, talking about fun in terms of ‘new and exciting ideas and resources’ not telling jokes and dressing as a clown.

The key here is long-term engagement, not just instant pleasure. 

I teach in a middle school now and know that when my students leave they have a minimum of 3 more years of Maths ahead of them. My job is not to produce a finished article but to produce students that are ready, and enthused, for the next stage of the journey.

I like to think my lessons can be ‘fun’ but we still have the balance of doing those exercises that require quiet focused application from each student.

Maintaining that balance allows those students to improve their skills set, and makes them want to take it further. 

This is my goal.

Different school, different story?

As a Maths teacher you are normally faced with a combination of the following:

  • Teaching Maths
  • Preparing for exams/assessments

I know that this is a watered down explanation of our role, but at the heart of what we do are those 2 elements.

In the summer of 2015 I left my position working in an upper school (13-19) and took up a position in a middle school (9-13) as a Head of Department. In doing so I was moving somewhat into the unknown (my initial training was as a primary Maths specialist, but I had worked solely in the secondary sector)

I was faced with doubts and concerns. This was mainly due to the change in the age range as the school offered a very warm welcome. I was aware of the curriculum changes, having been preparing for teaching the new 9-1 GCSE. However I was now faced with the 2016 SATs for our year 6 and this seemed to be a very familiar battle from the outset.

Then I remembered the words of David Brent 

You may be wondering which of his philosophical sound bites rang true, and if you would like to see, click on this link:

A good idea…“A good idea is a good idea forever”

This is so true. There are 5 years between my current year 6 class and their year 11 counterparts, but the process of preparing for their assessment has a familiar feel to it.

My year 6’s will take out their folders at the beginning of the week and in them they will find their Numetacy Ninjas book (can’t rate these high enough!) and a series of assessments, with a mixture of peer and self assessment, and topic lists for improvement.

Those little things that we brought in to better prepare our year 11’s are now serving the same process in year 6. And the students have bought into these ideas because they believe they work, and they are seeing them work.

Assessment in small, but regular, chunks allows any student to visualise progress and become more and more comfortable with the concept of being assessed.

So yes, every school will provide a different background, and with it a very different challenge. The story though is always written with the same pen. 

“A good idea is a good idea forever” 

The fear of Maths!

There is no doubt that there has always been a widespread fear of Maths, and in particular learning Maths.

If we believe the following quote, that fear should be a concern to those of us involved in the teaching of Maths.

I have heard words like “he/she’s never got on with Maths” or “I can’t help him/her at home” at so many parents evenings, and as a result you start to understand why some students already have a fixed mindset about the subject.

There is no doubt that the following statement is true

so therefore the only way to eradicate the fear of Maths is for students to embrace Maths in the classroom. But how do we achieve this with students who already have the fear?

The first answer has to be to show them how they must deal with things that they get wrong, or when they don’t understand how to get to the correct answer

I have had many conversations with students who have been afraid to ‘guess’ or ‘attempt’ an answer in lessons for fear of this being wrong. My experience is that this is a common response in all year groups, and that it is harder to ‘undo’ the older the student is.

So how should the student be encouraged to attempt an answer? Especially considering the chances that their answer will be incorrect. 

A demonstration can be used to show that when attempting a second answer the student use the incorrect answer to help them. This can even be done through teaching the student trial and improvement as an actual lesson. This of course relies of several ‘estimated’ answers that are used to obtain a best solution in the end.

One idea that I have come across is to play a simple game where students have to guess your mystery number. Every time a student makes an attempt to ‘guess’ the number they are given a clue such as ‘too big’ ‘too small’ or ‘that’s only 5 away’

Straight away the students are engaged because there is less pressure when guessing, but they want to find out your number and can therefore use the clues to get closer to the answer until they will finally reach it.

The above is how I talk to my students about making mistakes, and accepting that it is in fact their first step on the journey. My current year 6 students will quite happily recite what ‘fail’ means and the majority of them are now far more prepared to accept that it is ok to make mistakes.

My hope now is that they will continue in this way as they progress through the years ahead of them. I can only believe that this in turn will help them to overcome the difficulties associated with the learning of Maths. 

In turn, maybe they will also use this skill in other subjects and give themselves a more growth mindset based approach to their studies in general.

Talk Maths

I love to talk about Maths, which is just as well as that’s what I’m paid to do!

It’s also advisable to encourage students to ‘talk maths’ as well. This enables them to demonstrate their understanding, improve their understanding (through listening to others) and increase their engagement in a subject that many decide is inaccessible.

One of my favourite memories comes from an Ofsted inspector who described the noise in my lesson as a ‘mathematical hum’ and talked about the excitement with which these year 11, boys in particular, talked about what they were doing. 

This year I have attempted to take this concept of ‘talking maths’one step further and ask all staff to engage in weekly ‘talk maths’ sessions with their classes, based around a central question/concept.

The responses have been very positive and many staff have been surprised by the way students have engaged with the subject matter. In addition staff have been encouraged to identify, and highlight, where they are using Maths in their lessons. This has further highlighted to students the way in which Maths impacts upon their lives.

The hope now is to train our older students to identify these uses of Maths for themselves and further improve their engagement in the subject.

The belief behind this approach is that students will always apply themselves with more rigour when they are engaged with the subject itself. This is a quote from a year 5 student last year:

 “you’re my favourite teacher sir, but you teach one of the worst subjects” My vision is to reverse the second part of that quote and make Maths the subject they all want to be in!


“Teachers only teach because of the long holidays”

Everyone who works in education has been subjected to that suggestion on multiple occasions, and it comes from all manner of sources.

I don’t think that anyone currently employed to teach our young people would offer this as an incentive for joining the profession, simply because of the attached commitments. I won’t go into details because we all know what those commitments involve, and how they vary from school to school, and from position to position.

I happen to consider myself fortunate to work as a classroom teacher, and I make a point of reminding myself of that fact when things seem to be not going the way that I’d like them to be.  

The holidays offer respite, recovery and reflection.  These three things are without a doubt crucial to be able to continue to work in an industry that is continually changing, and losing its members at too frequent a rate.

Respite: There is an intensity involved with being a classroom practitioner, and this intensity requires perpetual manipulation and adjustment just to keep it working for each class/lesson. If this was maintained for 52 weeks the outcome would be obvious because it simply couldn’t happen. There is a need to regularly take a break from that intensity to avoid burning out (not that it always works!)

Recovery: If we are taking a break so as not to burn out it is essential that recovery is worked into this break. This will consist primarily of extra sleep, spending time with friends & family and taking holidays. All of these allow us to feel ‘normal’ again and remove those pressures that threaten to bring us down during the term time.

Reflection: Don’t let any teacher fool you into thinking they do nothing during the holidays, and if anything be concerned if they suggest that. The need to have respite, and make a recovery, are tools to allow you to reflect on everything from your work attire to the way you choose to organise your entire classroom. We are all constantly feeling the need to adapt our approach, or streamline our strategies, and we use that time in the holidays to really think about, and then act on, what happened in the previous week, term or even year.

I for one will be thankful for moments like this as I recover:

and allow myself to recover and be in a position to reflect on what has been a very intense and challenging, but ultimately enjoyable school year.

I hope that you too will feel that everything is worth doing and come back even stronger next year!


It is very difficult, if you’re of a certain age, to see the word ‘collaborate’ without thinking of:

And I never ever thought I would be starting a serious blog post with a reference to Vanilla Ice! But it has now happened!

It’s half-term. It’s time to relax, unwind, switch off and basically chill out. However, when I do these things (36 hours in and yes, very successful so far) my mind clears and I am able to focus on things that have happened in the run up to this relaxation point.

Friday was an INSET day. This will always be a minefield, and most teachers will be able to share good and bad memories from such days. This INSET day was different. We weren’t in our school, we travelled across the county to attend a shared INSET day with all middle schools in the county.

Genius! Everyone who faces the same struggles as we do in the same place. This would be at the top of any wish list for the majority of teachers in the country, assuming they have a growth mindset of course!

How do you possibly make this work? Well a great start point is to put on stage someone who is going to entertain, motivate and inspire those in the audience. Did it happen? Yes it did! Mr David Cameron! No, not that one…the REAL David Cameron (@realdcameron) Anyone who had been fearing the worst for the day was instantly transformed. 

Then came the reason for being there in the first place….


Yes! The bringing together of all of these kindred spirits with the hope of providing everyone with something to take away. Workshops! Run by the very people they were being provided for! It is a growing trend, helped massively by social media, that teachers learn best from each other. 

There was a great choice, and opportunities to see the good things that were being done in very same situations to your own. Ideas discussed, furious scribbling down of ideas and a realisation that in no way are we alone out there doing our job. This last point brought a great deal of satisfaction to me personally, particularly as I’m still new to the middle school system.

There was of course the food, the goodie bag (Somerset will be awash with teachers sporting bright coffee mugs!) and the chat. But how do you finish something off that has already been a success? Do you simply let people go with a thank you and “happy half-term”?

No, you bring out a second inspirational speaker to entertain and inspire the audience. Robin Launder (@BehaviourBuddy) reminded us of the reasons we, and our students, benefit from a growth mindset. It was a very fitting way to complete a positive experience.

So did I STOP? Yes, taking a day away from my classroom is always tough but is needed from time to time.

Did I manage to COLLABORATE? Absolutely! The subject specific workshop allowed for lots of useful discussion with colleagues facing the same challenges as we do.

But did I LISTEN? I never stopped! I listened and I was inspired. 

This is without a doubt the best way to finish a half-term, and for me personally was the single most positive INSET day in 15 years of teaching. That is not something I will forget in a hurry, and am already looking forward to next year!

So, don’t forget the most important three words in a teachers vocabulary:

Oh, and happy half-term!!