Case study: Mathematics and numeracy

Written by: Sam Moncaster | Published:
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Head of maths Sam Moncaster discusses his school’s work to embed maths across the curriculum and to improve numeracy skills for weaker pupils

I would like to put forward that I do not like the term “numeracy”. In fact, I think I dislike it as much as the word “literacy”...

The reason, however, might not be why you think!

In my experience, like literacy is too often confused with English as a subject, numeracy is too often confused with mathematics as a subject. In each case, both are not interchangeable and it is vital we consider both in separation.

In this article, I want to outline two major changes that we have embedded at Siddal Moor Sports College, where I am the head of maths. These changes have been to improve pupils’ numeracy and also to embed mathematics across the curriculum.

Numeracy

I must admit that it has taken me some time to really grasp the importance of numeracy skills. In fact it was while talking to my team member who had been analysing the achievement of the key stage 4 lowest sets that this discussion was opened up – and her reaction was “we have failed these pupils”.

A powerful statement and it made me really think about what was important. How could there be pupils who have been in schooling for more than 10 years who still struggle with basic calculation? But nevertheless we would press on with cumulative frequency because it was sure to come up on the exam – and that’s what is important.

This is when I began to put some real thought into how to make sure that not only were our pupils numerate but that we couldn’t be accused of failing pupils ever again. If we were hoping to expand across the curriculum we must first get it right ourselves.

I needed to go back to the drawing board and implement some radical changes in the department. This is when we created nurture groups in years 7, 8 and 9.

These groups had a ratio of one adult to seven pupils at their largest and one adult to two pupils at their smallest, and were based solely on ensuring that our least numerate pupils could become fluent in their numeracy skills.

As per best practice, I analysed the effectiveness of the groups. They were a huge success and saw our weakest pupils being able to access parts of the curriculum which in the past we would not have even dreamed they would be engaging with.

However, it came to light that while we focused on the weakest few, we had huge droves of pupils throughout the year group who, even though their achievement was still in line with their peers, also had poor underlying numeracy skills. This is why we have turned to “Numeracy Ninjas”.

Every week fresh-faced key stage 3 pupils join me in the canteen during form time – one year group per morning. We focus on key numeracy such as times tables and mental calculation skills. For the pupils, the incentive is simply in coming and the highest achievers from the week before and the most improved pupils receive a round of applause.

For me, it is an opportunity to give the pupils a timed numeracy skills test, which they peer mark before returning to their tutors to record results.

With an increased emphasis on problem-solving in lessons, we are finding that the majority of pupils can now access these challenges straight away without the numerical barriers that were previously in the way.

Mathematics

The second part to talk about is mathematics across the curriculum. This is something that I have wondered about since my NQT year when I had an argument with a science colleague about the difference between a trend line and a line of best fit.

It was from this conversation that I started to realise why some pupils struggled so much with certain topics.

This issue raised its head again recently when the science and maths departments needed to work together because of an increase in maths content in the new science curriculum – and the fact that maths was needed to be directly taught in some aspects of the science classes.

My team gave the science department some lessons and sent them on their way to cobble something together to teach, confident that this would make their life easier. One week later, they told us the lesson was disastrous!

This problem was not borne out of poor teaching on either side but a differing set of priorities. While the science lesson only needed a surface level understanding of a particular maths topic, for the pupils to fully grasp this mathematics, they needed deeper understanding – think of it, the more you dig, the more you uncover.

This is when I completely flipped the idea on its head: not all teachers will be teaching mathematics across the curriculum.

Middle leaders decided that our time should actually be spent curriculum-matching. So, if science needs the pupils to know standard form then we will match our curricula so that the week before they need it we teach it in maths – so that science can focus on using the knowledge and not teaching it.

In addition, we have also begun to collect exam questions from other subjects that contain a maths slant so that we can adapt and teach the pupils how to apply the maths in each case.

From early testing, I can see that curriculum matching can have many barriers if it is to be successful, least of which being the time commitment needed from staff in all departments. We are very early in the journey with our approach to curriculum-matching so I am yet to have all the answers. Once I have them I will be more than happy to share. Until then any ideas to help along the way are greatly appreciated.

  • Sam Moncaster is head of mathematics at Siddal Moor Sports College in Heywood, Lancashire. He is also a participant on the Ambition School Leadership Teaching Leaders programme. You can find him on Twitter @Sammy_T88 or via moncasters@siddalmoor.uk

Ambition School Leadership

Ambition School Leadership is a charity that runs leadership development programmes in England to help school leaders create more impact in schools that serve disadvantaged children and their communities. Visit www.ambitionschoolleadership.org.uk


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