Norfolk school adds to the debate on how maths should be taught
09:00 28 March 2014
With maths standards in the spotlight since a recent fact-finding trip to China, education correspondent Martin George visited a Norfolk primary school to see what is already happening on our doorsteps.
Last year, the UK came 26th in an international league table of maths performance, with the Shanghai at the top. The news sparked national debate about how our schools teach maths, whether our society values the subject properly, and what we can learn from the Far East.
In February, South West Norfolk MP and education minister Elizabeth Truss led a delegation to China to examine how its schools approach the subject, but while the debate focused on lessons from China, other voices pointed to pockets of excellence that already exist in Norfolk, which should be applauded and supported.
North Walsham Infant School was named one of 12 best in the country for teaching reading in 2010, and in the same year it introduced a parallel system for teaching maths, Maths Makes Sense, devised by education consultant Richard Dunne.
The system was extended to the junior school when the two federated in 2012, and Oxford University Press has made it an advocate school for the programme, for other schools to learn from.
According to the website of Richard Dunne Maths Training, the programme “ensures deep conceptual and procedural understanding through a carefully planned and co-ordinated learning system of concrete objects, exaggerated actions and special vocabulary – developing fluency, reasoning and problem-solving skills”.
Headteacher Clare Fletcher said: “It’s about getting the children to read and understand the language of maths.
“It’s like learning a language. If you can read a sentence because you know the sounds, and when you put them together, that’s what it means - apply that to maths. Look at the numbers on the page.
“What are the numbers telling you? It’s a story.”
Take fractions, which are taught to the reception classes. Where many schools would use examples of cakes or pizzas to teach the concept, this system teaches the abstract concept, and only once the children understand is it applied to real-life situations.
Pupils work in pairs chosen by the teacher throughout their seven years at the schools, and instead of raising their hands to answer the teacher’s questions, they talk to their partner.
Mrs Fletcher said: “Every child has a partner so whether they are confident or less confident they have an opportunity to think through their thinking, compare how they solve something, and you really understand something if you teach someone else properly.”
She said that as well as improving their fluency in maths, the pair system improved children’s confidence and communication skills, and makes it easy for teachers to set work to stretch high-performing pairs while they concentrate on those that need more support.
The school is also careful never to describe a mathematical problem as ‘hard’, which it believes signals that pupils cannot do it, but uses the word ‘tricky’, with the suggestion that with a bit of effort they can.
Pupils also sit in rows facing the front, so the teacher can see how they are doing.
The school now holds open days for parents so they know better how to help their children, and every half-term it invites other schools to watch maths lessons. A total of 11 teachers from across Norfolk attended a session on Monday, and 20 came the time before.
Mrs Fletcher said: “School-to-school support is essential. That’s how you get real change in the system. Heads have not got time to listen to less credible advisors telling them how to do something. What they want is real day-to-day support from people in the same situation to them and get to the essence of what works.
“It’s always happened in pockets in Norfolk but it’s never been managed strategically, but I think increasingly schools are learning the system change is coming from within.”
The infant and junior schools spend £3,000 a year to buy in the maths consultancy for the Maths Makes Sense programme, which is published by Oxford University Press, and another £3,000 on the literacy programme Read, Write, Inc.
How can Norfolk schools improve how they teach maths? Email email@example.com