Preparing for English and mathematics

Written by: HTU | Published:

We’ve left the basics until last. In the final article in our series on preparing for the new curriculum, Suzanne O’Connell focuses on the national curriculum for English and maths and the advice available for those gearing up for September 2014

Of the 200 pages of the Primary National Curriculum document, 67 are occupied by English and 43 by maths. Compared with the two pages on music and the three for PE and foreign languages, you can soon start to see where the Department for Education’s (DfE) priorities lie. 

However, the detail surrounding the English and maths programmes of study is content rather than method-based. Schools still have lots of decisions to make about delivery and the days of government prescribing the format of lessons, which we saw with the literacy and numeracy strategies, are long gone.

The relief that schools can largely choose their own methods should not detract from the fact that children will have to learn more and earlier. A move that not everyone feels comfortable with. For those trained in the theory of “readiness” for some concepts, earlier introduction does not necessarily mean higher standards in the long term. 

In order to assist schools in implementing the new curriculum, the DfE is publishing links to additional guidance. For example, on the National College for Teaching and Leadership website (see further information for all links), there are examples of good practice, video clips and “think pieces” to provoke debate and discussion. There are workshop ideas and activities to encourage reflection surrounding the principles that you hold as a school.

As mentioned in the last issue, the advisory Expert Groups are developing their own materials for schools to use. There is at least one subject association linked to each subject area that is providing audit tools, resources and ideas.

The gradual publication of materials, ideas, resources and points for discussion is welcome, but is it enough? Small schools in particular, may struggle to find the material that will help them most among so many sources and links. 

In this article, we consider the advice and information available to schools and headteacher Alison Peacock, from The Wroxham School in Hertfordshire, explains how they are making preparations.

English

It was good to see greater priority given to spoken language in the second national curriculum draft. This aside, the new curriculum does represent a more technical approach to teaching English than many teachers will have been trained in and improving their subject knowledge might be the first step.

The importance of reading for enjoyment is rightly emphasised in the introduction, although the insistence on repeated, regular and rigorous phonics teaching might seem to be at odds with this. However, schools have not, fortunately, abandoned other methods as demonstrated in the phonics screening test evaluation where 87 per cent of schools said that they agreed or agreed somewhat that other methods should also be used. 

The Literacy Trust is currently the expert group providing materials to schools to help them develop their English curriculum. Their curriculum review and planning tool is available online. It provides prompts and questions around the areas of reading, writing, spoken language and drama. 

English at Wroxham

Alison Peacock explains how Wroxham School is preparing its English curriculum: “We began teaching the new curriculum for English when it was published as there are many changes to implement. We had already begun to place much greater emphasis on the teaching of technical skills such as punctuation, handwriting fluency, spelling and grammar.

“We decided to organise our key stage 2 timetable to provide opportunities for colleagues to teach to strengths. This enabled our year 4 teacher, Steve Davy, to provide a lead lesson on grammar in years 4, 5 and 6 every week. Specialist teaching, alongside a passion for inspiring children to discuss and write about issues that they are interested in, has formed our main approach to this aspect of the curriculum.

“We have also increased the amount of detailed written feedback that we provide as part of a learning dialogue in the children’s books.

“In key stage 1, we place emphasis on the importance of spoken language in preparation for writing composition.

“We are in the process of refreshing our school library stock and have also asked our Friends’ Association to raise funds to replace many of our group reading texts throughout the school. Each class has discussed how they could make their class book area more appealing and this has resulted in new cushions, new shelving to display books more clearly, and displays that entice children to find a book and enjoy reading. 

“Our library bus on the playground also provides an option for lunchtime reading with friends. Several of our staff team have presented at Literacy Trust conferences in preparation for the new curriculum. You can find additional resources from our school on the Literacy Trust curriculum website.”

Mathematics

Mathematics, similarly to English, places very clear expectations about the content to be learnt in each key stage. However, many will feel that there are more important skills around developing mathematical thinking that are not as strongly represented. 

Sue Pope, chair of the general council at the Association of Teachers of Mathematics (ATM), emphasises the importance of teachers looking carefully at the aims of the new curriculum and taking some inspiration from there, rather than simply looking at the content of the programmes of study. She told Headteacher Update:  “In particular, take a look at the focus on problem-solving, mathematical reasoning and conceptual understanding. We encourage reflection on what fluent in mathematics might be and how that relates to these foci.”

Having a secure understanding is important and although the national curriculum acknowledges the need for pupils to be ready to progress, the condensed content of the curriculum and reporting demands are likely to put pressure on teachers to do otherwise.

Perhaps most important for Ms Pope and the ATM is that schools retain the good work they are doing already: “If they are successful in securing confident and resilient learners of mathematics who understand mathematics and can use it to solve problems, then they need to be very careful about any changes they make. A key message is, don’t lose the good stuff you have already.”

The DfE is developing Maths Hubs across England. There will be around 30 hubs and each will be led by an outstanding school in partnership with neighbouring schools and colleges. However, they are still not completely up and running, and although they might help to develop the new curriculum in time schools cannot turn to them yet. 

The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCTEM) is the relevant organisation on the Expert Group subject advisors website. They have developed 60 short videos and other resources to support the development of maths in the national curriculum.

The ATM’s publications also provide support for teachers who want to develop problem-solving and mathematical reasoning. It has a bi-monthly journal which includes a range of ideas for teaching maths. 

Mathematics at Wroxham

“Our approach to teaching mathematics is to enable every child to gain confidence with numbers and to understand that if they do not know something, it is because we have not taught it to them yet, rather than taking a deficit view that they may not be ‘good at maths’. Children are not grouped by ability but challenge themselves in maths lessons to choose tasks that will enhance their understanding and stretch their skills. These ‘choice and challenge’ lessons give children control over their learning and in our school have led to very high standards of attainment.

“We have not been held back by thinking in terms of ‘levels’. We enjoy the prospect of teaching less content in greater depth and have found resources on the NCETM site particularly useful. 

“You can see our children talking about how they approach maths in a short film entitled We Challenge Ourselves on our school website. This film has been extensively used by Tim Oates, chair of the Expert Panel, when explaining to conference audiences how he envisages this approach to mathematics working in practice.

“Throughout the school, implementation of the maths curriculum and discussions about effective maths pedagogy are led by our year 6 teacher, Sally Barker. Sally loves maths and encourages all children to understand that when engaged in problem-solving they begin best when they ask: “If I know this, what else do I know?”

Curriculum conclusions

Over the last four issues, we have touched on each of the subjects in the new national primary curriculum, with some inspirational examples from Wroxham School to give you food for thought. What is important to remember is that having your new curriculum up and running in September isn’t everything. What’s most important is that schools don’t ditch what’s proven to be good or assume everything has to be changed at once. Many schools are taking the view that they will do what they can by September but providing value in the longer term is important too. The programmes of study cannot do it on their own. If you are in any doubt, watch the video clip of Sir Ken Robinson entitled A Paradigm Shift (see further information). It’s a thought-provoking look at the historical reasons for how schools have developed and the complexities of devising a curriculum for the future. 

• Suzanne O’Connell is an education writer and former headteacher.

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