Our Trustee Lynn Churchman, and chairman of the National Association of Mathematics Advisers, gives her reaction to this week's publication of the National Curriculum Review in The Telegraph article by Peter Stanford, entitled 'Maths and Michael Gove: look, listen, learn - and forget?'.
“There seems to be an element of the Department for Education releasing these draft proposals as a way of forcing the pace of debate,” says Lynn Churchman, chairman of the National Association of Mathematics Advisers, and a trustee of the charity National Numeracy. “And that is not a bad thing, given the urgency of the problem.”
But is Gove right in pointing a finger first at primary schools? “I understand why he has started with them,” says Churchman. “I think it would be unfair to say that they are the cause of what is a much bigger, more complex problem, but if you see maths as like a game of Jenga, then it is crucial to build a solid foundation of basic numeracy in primary schools if the whole thing isn’t going to come tumbling down when children go on to secondary school.”
“I don’t have any issue with rote learning of times tables for nine-year-old children,”... “Most good primaries here do it already, but the problem comes when memory is the children’s only strategy for learning maths. Evidence suggests it just isn’t sufficient as they move on to more complex questions. But in China and other Pacific Rim countries, rote learning might better be called deep learning because they don’t tell pupils that it doesn’t matter as long as they remember the right answer. They also work to develop a secure grasp of concepts in maths, the way you get to the answer. That is what our children often lack.”
“There is a problem with the quality of primary school teachers’ maths skills, but it is part of a bigger issue. We train teachers here in one year. In China and Singapore, they take much longer. They therefore have a specialist model at primary level, while we rely on generalists. In an ideal world, we’d imitate them, but successive governments have balked at the cost of the extra training and the salaries you would need to draw scarce maths graduates into primary teaching.”
"I want our curriculum changes to provide heads with a clear sense of high expectations in the essential subjects of mathematics, science and English. Our curriculum changes should also ensure that schools are held properly and rigorously accountable for helping all pupils to succeed in key subjects. And our curriculum changes must provide the gifted teachers we have in our classrooms with both a sense of the higher standards that we know they are driven to reach and the freedom to develop more innovative and effective approaches to teaching.
It will be for each school to specify in its own way the year-by-year detail of its own curriculum in every subject. But in order to ensure that our children master the essential core knowledge which other nations pass on to their pupils, we are publishing primary Programmes of Study in mathematics, science and English which are explicitly more ambitious than ever before.
In mathematics there will be additional stretch, with much more challenging content than in the current National Curriculum. We will expect pupils to be more proficient in arithmetic, including knowing number bonds to 20 by Year 2 and times tables up to 12 x 12 by the end of Year 4. The development of written methods - including long multiplication and division - will be given greater emphasis, and pupils will be taught more challenging content using fractions, decimals and negative numbers so that they have a more secure foundation for secondary school.
Our draft Programmes of Study are the starting point for a debate on content, not the conclusion. I am clear, however, that the debate should be driven by an ambition for all our children to excel, regardless of their background.
In order to ensure that every child is expected to master this content, I have, as the panel recommended, decided that the current system of levels and level descriptors should be removed and not replaced.
I have considered carefully the panel’s suggestion that, in primary schools, all pupils should be expected to have grasped core content before the class moves on. The international evidence which you provided on this issue is indeed both interesting and important.
I do agree with the panel that there needs to be a relentless focus on ensuring that all pupils grasp key curriculum content. The removal of level descriptors and the emphasis in the new Programmes of Study on what pupils should know and be able to do will help to ensure that schools concentrate on making sure that all pupils reach the expected standard, rather than on labelling differential performance.
In terms of statutory assessment, however, I believe that it is critical that we both recognise the achievements of all pupils, and provide for a focus on progress. Some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required, so that we can recognise and reward the highest achievers as well as identifying those who are falling below national expectations. We will consider further the details of how this will work.
We will work closely with the teaching profession over the coming months to determine exactly how the new National Curriculum will be enhanced and assessed. Our guiding principle will always be to learn from the highest-performing schools and give special weight to the experience of those professionals who have done most to raise attainment for all students and who have helped the disadvantaged most of all."
MIchael Gove (Secretary of State for Education)