This weekend I answered a call for help from a friend whose 10 year old daughter was really struggling with her maths homework.
I arrived to find that this bright and capable girl had received a massive blow to her confidence when she had scored 0/30 in her latest piece of homework. What horrified me though was the complete lack of feedback – the pupils had self marked their homework as the answers had been read out in class but absolutely no attempts had been made by the teacher to discuss any mistakes or in this case, a child’s complete incomprehension of the task. No further consolidation was deemed necessary for this pupil and the scheme of work had merrily been followed with progression onto a new topic with no support to clarify and cement the concepts she had just not understood. Her next piece of homework was related – that is, it involved maths – but in no way did it follow on from the previous tasks and there was no introduction to the task to follow. She had been given a worksheet with no explanation of what to do, if she hadn’t had me there she would have been stumped. Together we made a diagram to explain the process she needed to follow and then she was able to work independently, using her own notes to refer to if she got stuck.
This isn’t just me criticising some primary school teacher, well it is, but what really struck me was the fact that this child appeared to have so many missing building blocks that are necessary for progression in maths. She doesn’t know number bonds, doesn’t know her times tables, struggles with the concepts of fractions and division and can’t fathom using number lines. If I don’t step in to support this young girl, she will continue through her final year of primary school and into secondary school with a vast array of missing areas of understanding, and no one will bother to support her to catch up. Teachers will merrily move on and follow their schemes of work, regardless of whether she ‘gets it’ or not and she will leave school in 6 years time without a high grade maths qualification. I know this because I see the product of it every day in my post 16 Functional Maths classes.
The Wolf report has led to maths and English being priority subjects in the new 16-19 Study Programmes because thousands of teenagers leave secondary education without A*-C in those core subjects. We are now being expected to pick up the pieces of 11 years of teaching that obviously hasn’t done the trick and in 1 or 2 years we are expected to identify those fundamental gaps, fill them, consolidate understanding and then support progression to a L2 qualification. Why is this being left to the post 16 sector? Why isn’t more being done to improve maths and English at Primary and Secondary levels? I have massive respect for my colleagues in those sectors and I have met some truly inspiring teachers but there are many who do not have the skill or desire to support students to achieve their true potential, or who are desperately fire fighting against the system of large classes and short days meaning they just don’t have the time or resources to meet the needs of every student.
So much needs to be done to fix this state of affairs: the gifted and talented need to be stretched, the middle ability students need to be pushed towards more challenging work and the lower levels need consolidation of key concepts and confidence building – challenges for any teacher, but the changes need to happen at policy level. It seems there are few answers, but we are slowly and surely sliding towards a state of diametric opposition to where we need to be to allow our young people to compete for jobs in a world market that expects more. Many are even struggling to achieve a state where they can use the maths and English required by every day existence to just get by. Whatever Gove does to the exam system in Year 11, maybe he needs to look more closely at teacher training provision to ensure that all teachers are given the skills to ensure that students don’t get left behind. It rarely happens in the private system and it shouldn’t happen to anyone just because they can’t afford the privileges of independent education.