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The Way Forward for Primary Maths

Last academic year was a challenge for all teachers; we are getting to grips with the new curriculum, new test regime and new assessment processes. As we look forward to next year it is time to reflect and think about what we have learnt.

The key purpose behind the maths SATs test is to allow pupils to demonstrate what they have learnt, retained and can apply during their primary education. The government designed the new curriculum to raise the standard of mathematics and to ensure that all pupils are ready to access a secondary maths curriculum. Some schools have had pleasing results despite the fact that the year 6 children have only had 2 years teaching on the ‘new’ curriculum, and only two terms in year 6. Other schools will spend the summer holidays worrying about the results and changing their curriculum coverage accordingly.

Ascertaining if we have raised standards is difficult at the moment. This year performance is measured differently therefore it is impossible to make any comparative judgements with previous years. The ‘pass’ mark was 60 out of an available 110, only 70% reached this standard … does this mean that 30% are not ready for secondary school?

The errors children have made are now being analysed so that school leaders can have a better understanding of the skills and areas that children are weakest on and plan next year’s teaching. Unfortunately, the tests, and mark schemes, did not allow all children to be successful or demonstrate their understanding. There were some questions which were designed with up to 4 reasoning steps but only allocated 2 marks. If the mark scheme had been designed differently the raw scores may have reflected the children’s ability more accurately. The tests are focused towards rewarding students who can use formal methods in arithmetic. However, the majority of questions in paper 1 could be tackled quickly using mental methods. To be successful children required a strong knowledge of number, high levels of numeracy and the ability to problem solve using their conceptual understanding.

Teaching mathematics needs to start with developing the foundations of conceptual understanding. Giving children time to play, exploring and investigating concepts giving them the rich experiences which they can relate to in order to support them in developing their understanding. For example, how can you expect a child to solve a money problem if they have never really used money in any type of meaningful context? We need to find a way to replicate this meaningful experience and practical application in the classroom.

The next step is for the children to play with the concept. Children playing 60 second games to practise key skills on a daily basis is very powerful and should not be underestimated. The games act as a hook to excite, engage and challenge the children, they also support children in developing fluency in a particular skill: procedural efficiency alongside conceptual understanding. Children can then begin using the concept, developing it and making connections across and beyond mathematics. Remembering that too much practice too soon can undermine new concepts and lead to maths anxiety. This circular approach then repeats as new skills, concepts and ideas are added. This whole approach is underpinned by talk-led, active and collaborative approaches, which provide the foundation for successful mathematicians.

In order for children to become procedurally fluent they need to be able to build on a strong foundation of conceptual understanding, the ability to think through strategic reasoning and then apply this to different scenarios and real life problems. Our children need to be given opportunities to justify both informal strategies and commonly used procedures mathematically, to support and justify their choices of appropriate procedures, and to strengthen their understanding and skill through distributed practice. 

Looking back at the tests, paper 2 and 3 contained questions that required a flexible understanding of content and the ability to decipher complex situations. If we teach the children to investigate, test, apply, justify and evaluate concepts a greater proportion will be successful.

Schools now need to look at how we teach mathematics and consider the mastery model for all children to be successful.