GoFundMe – Get us to New Zealand

This site has been lying dormant for some time, as I have been insanely busy.

The reasons why, and the reason why I’m posting now, are both intrinsically bound up in this GoFundMe page:


Please click to read more for the details.

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Oh Captain, My Captain…

I don’t often blog about the death of celebrities. Don’t get me wrong, there are some who have died in my lifetime whose deaths have been shocking due to their youth (Amy Winehouse, Peaches Geldof) and some who have left large holes in the lives of their devoted fans (Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston) and there was even one whose death touched the hearts of the world (Princess Diana), but today, I woke to the news of a celebrity’s death and it moved me to tears.

Yes, I am talking about Robin Williams, who will always be My Captain.

I grew up with Robin Williams. I watched Mork and Mindy re-runs on Sunday mornings. I watched Popeye the movie after my parents took me and my sister to visit the village were it was filmed in Malta. Films like Mrs Doubtfire, Jumanji and Hook were regular viewings in my home during my childhood. Even when my sister and I were at odds over what to watch, we could often reach agreement on Hook.

But as I got older, I encountered more and more of Williams’ work and it touched different places in my soul, aside from my sense of humour.

My Dad recorded ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ off the television when I was a teenager. It was one of the films I remember watching with my whole family – those were rare. We howled with laughter and we cried and we sang to the music and when Dad bought me the CD soundtrack for Christmas that year, we memorized Williams’ rants and rambles which were as much of a joy to listen to as the classic 1960s music which I was growing to love. But behind that, there was a genuine horror of war, of the waste of young lives and the dangers of censorship.

It’s the truth. I just want to report the truth. It’ll be a nice change of pace.

Good Morning, Vietnam

A few years later, I watched Awakenings, which formed many of my opinions on the long term care of disabled adults. I now work in the care sector and have never forgotten the early lessons I learned from this film, about respect, dignity and the respect of people’s ability to make whatever choices they are able to.

What we do know is that, as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place;
that the human spirit is more powerful than any drug – and THAT is what needs to be nourished:
with work, play, friendship, family. THESE are the things that matter.
This is what we’d forgotten – the simplest things.


Some years later, my mother and I watched Good Will Hunting, a film which drove me to tears with its depictions of grief, loss and coming to terms with suffering. It gave me frames of reference for dealing with my own mental illness, sadness and trauma recovery, as well as my husband’s. It also told me that people who are dealing with those issues are not always right and not always saints, but none the less human for those facts.

You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren’t paying attention to.

Good Will Hunting

And a few years ago I finally watched Dead Poets Society from start to finish.

I remember seeing bits of the film on a late night film slot on TV when I was a kid, but I was a bit too young to understand what was going on and was packed off to bed before the ending. A few years ago, I bought it cheap and watched it again.

I had qualified as a teacher some years before and decided not to pursue it as a career, because the training was not a good experience for me. Later I came to terms with the fact that I was very ill and broken during that time, and it was not solely the fault of the course, or the schools, or the mentors, that I had such a hard time (although some of them played their negative parts). I had thrown in the towel, given up, settled for administration as a career and was boring myself to a slow death behind various desks.

Watching Dead Poets Society again reminded me of why I had wanted to teach. Specifically why I had wanted to teach English. And why I wanted to teach poetry, and read poetry, and write poetry.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute.
We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.”

Dead Poets Society

Not that long after I saw the film again, I got a job working on an army preparation course as an administrator. Four months into the job, the manager asked if I knew anyone who was a qualified teacher, specifically an English teacher. I told her I was and asked why.

A vacancy had arisen for someone to design, implement and deliver an English functional skills course to the students, who were aged 15-19, mostly boys, often disenfranchised with education and from a wide mix of difficult backgrounds (foster care, adoption, smoking, drinking, petty crime, criminal records, teenage parenthood…) This would not be like teaching in a school. It would be a whole new challenge altogether.

Carpe Diem

Dead Poets Society

Sieze the day. How often had I said that as a kid, and as a teenager, having heard it in a scrap of a movie and thought it was a good idea? How often had I encouraged my friends to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ when they were scared of something new? Sieze the day. I decided to take the job.

Private school 50s kids these were not! It’s not exactly a surprise that the other film which sent me back to teaching was ‘Dangerous Minds’ (or more specifically, the book which inspired it, ‘My Posse Don’t Do Homework’). But there was something in Robin Williams’ portrayal of Mr Keating which struck chords in me that would not die.

Aside from teaching grammar, sentence composition, spelling, formal language, speaking skills and close reading skills, I did my best to instill into each of the boys in my classes a sense of self belief, a sense of pride, responsibility and an appreciation for expression. In some cases it worked beautifully. In others, not so much, and I had days where I left my classroom disheartened, tired and exhausted, but they were outweighed by the ones where I felt I had made a difference.

John Keating: I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.
Nolan: At these boys’ age? Not on your life!

Dead Poets Society

Nobody expected my boys to think. They were written off in the early stages of their youth. I despised that mindset. I always have. I am devoted to the idea that it is never too late to restart, to learn, to begin again, to change the way you see yourself and the world around you. I tried my hardest to make them think. To make them ask questions, even if it was only to ask THEMSELVES questions. To make them see the world from their own perspective. Not the one that someone else had decided they should have.

I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.

Dead Poets Society

I don’t believe that it would have been possible for Robin Williams to have played the role of Mr Keating with anything like that conviction, energy or passion if he didn’t share the same ideals. Any more than I believe he could have played Sean in Good Will Hunting without genuine compassion and a belief in love. Or than he could have played Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam without an absolute love for music and a horror of war. Or than he could have played Malcolm Sayer without a deep respect for human rights.

Robin Williams touched hearts because he put HIS heart into every role. That’s what made him a gifted actor, aside from being a gifted comedian. His ability to find the ridiculous and the humorous in every situation, no matter how bleak or empty, allowed him to show everyone the darker sides of human life with hope and encouragement.

Robin Williams is one of the reasons why I teach. He is absolutely the reason why I teach English. He is one of the reasons I write poetry, and read poetry, and love poetry. He is one of the reasons I work in the care sector for adults. He is one of the reasons I agreed to go to therapy, both for his words on screen and off camera. Through his portrayals, laced with his wit and infectious humour, he showed me that the world did want to be a better place, even if it was up against the odds.

Oh Captain, my dear Captain. We never met, but you had more impact upon my life, my soul, my self, than many of the people who have trodden through my life within arm’s reach. Your death came too soon, I had hoped to look up to you for another twenty years. But sleep well, dear Robin. Rest now. Just Rest.

Gooooooooood-byyyyyyye Vietnaaaaam! That’s right, I’m history… I’m outta here. I got the lucky ticket home, baby. Rollin, rollin, rollin’… keep them wagons rollin’, rawhide! Yeah, that’s right… the final Adrian Cronauer broadcast… and this one is brought to you by our friends at the Pentagon. Remember the people who brought you Korea? That’s right, the U.S. Army.

Good Morning, Vietnam

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Learning about Racism

So my 14 year old learner and I started reading ‘Noughts and Crosses’.

He’s been out of school for 2 years and wasn’t progressing well when he was there. It’s taken six months to get to the point where he can work independently and read aloud with fluency. In that six months, we’ve read war poetry, written an essay on his opinions about Ben Affleck’s ability to play the role of Batman, been to a Remembrance service, read Macbeth and been to see it performed live at a local theatre and done a whole host of mathematical work too. He now knows what the best deal is on the XBox One after working out percentage discounts and compound interest rates.

I was talking about these lessons at work with my colleagues and I explained why I had chosen Noughts and Crosses.

I’ll explain to you what I wanted to explain to them, but sadly I never got this far as you will see below.

My learner has a bit of a persecution complex (“the world is out to get me and nobody likes me and my life is doomed because I come from a council estate in the poor north of England”). This is not uncommon amongst the lesser educated working class people of the area (by area I mean ‘North of England’ not just one county).

My learner has a lot of advantages going for him which he is blind to.

He is white. He is (by his own account) straight. He is a cis male. He has parents who love him. He has family who love him. He has access to a free education in his native language.

He lives in a community surrounded by people who are just like him. And who all share the same view of the world which places them at the bottom of the ladder, and who all believe that they should be ‘entitled’ to more and that they have somehow been let down by a great system. Many of these people do not work. Many of them have only ever lived on benefits. My learner once innocently commented that is brother had got a job, working full time, which made him ‘a bit weird’ n their street.

He has never met a person of colour. He has never met anyone from a different faith. He has never met anyone from a different religion. Or from any religion. None of his friends or any of the people he knows attend any church of any kind. He lives in a very white washed world, and I want to inject a little colour (no pun intended) into his views and I feel this is even more important because he is not going to school and mixing with people from other backgrounds.

Don’t get me wrong – he’s a great kid and would be shocked to think of any of his views as being racist. Lennox Lewis is one of his heroes. So is Prince Naseem Hammed. So is Jay-Z. But he sees them as being emblematic of the success available specifically to people of colour in the wider world. He believes he is at a disadvantage for being white.

I decided to get him to read ‘Noughts and Crosses’ to put that view into perspective and also to bring in social studies, history and a bit of citizenship and legal history into our lessons and discussions.

I tried to explain this to the people I work with. By teaching this book I can bring in snippets about Nelson Mandela, about the ANC, about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, about the Civil Rights Movement, about Malcolm X. I get to bring in all of these things to show him about the wider world that we live in and to show him how far down things really go in terms of what people get and what they feel entitled to.

I was not prepared for the indignant dismissal and outrage (it should be pointed out this conversation happened in the week that Nelson Mandela died when news coverage was at its height).

People wanted to know why I didn’t teach him a classic text like Dickens or Austen (ie a book written by a white man, talking about white men and how powerful white men are. Or a book written by a white woman, walking about white women and how they should be grateful for rich white men who want to marry them.)

I got as far in my statement as saying ‘I want him to read about a world which includes people of colour…’ when I got cut off by a derisive snort.

Prior to this conversation I would never have thought that any of my colleagues were racist.

And then it started.

“Black people get all the attention these days.”

“There will be a black Prime Minister before we know it.”

“Nothing makes the news unless its about black people and what they want, I’m sick of reading about them.”

I dared to cut in and say that I didn’t just mean black people when I said people of colour…

“Oh don’t start about Pakis…”

“You can’t get a job in (blah town) if you speak English these days…”

“Bloody terrorists coming over here, ruining our white children”*

(* In a local town recently there was a well publicised case about a smashed paedophile ring – all of the victims were white girls, all of the perpetrators who were tried were Pakistani men)

“I don’t get why you have to do this stuff with him, why you choose it. Can’t you  do a nice story with him instead?” (The person in question has never read the book).

At this point, I slunk away disheartened and realised I was fighting a losing battle in having the conversation but more convinced than ever that I needed him to read this story and understand it. I was more than a little shell shocked. None of these people are people I would have thought of as being racist. Our work force is multi-ethnic, to say the least. I was reeling, in all honesty, and wondering how white washed my own vision had been and what on earth I had lifted the lid on.

As I was making coffee and pulling my thoughts back together, there was a tap at my elbow.

It was our visiting nursing specialist. A black woman, who was born in Swaziland and qualified as a nurse at university in Johannesburg. I hadn’t even realised that she was in the building, but apparently she had been in one of the side offices and heard the entire embarrassing pa-lava.

She said, very quietly “My country has come a long way since when I was born. Sometimes you see how far there is for the rest of the world to go. But we should all keep walking. And people who dig their heels in will be left behind. Let them shout and leave them there.” She smiled immensely, one of those enormous smiles that lights someone’s face suddenly. “I hope that he enjoys the story as well as learning from it.”

Today, I stopped in at the office for some files, and in my drawer was a slightly battered copy of ‘The Long Walk To Freedom’. There was a bright pink sticky note on the front with an enormous smiley face drawn on it.

No name.

But I know who it was from.

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Universally shit? Was that too extreme? I don’t think so.

I stand by my previous comment saying that someone’s maths education can be ‘universally shit’. I did not use the phrase to indicate that EVERY PERSON has a shit maths education. But it is possible for one person’s ENTIRE maths education, from primary school up to the age of 16, to be delivered by non specialist teachers who are lacking in confidence, expertise, guidance or continuity (ie they are supply teachers).

Sorry, but that classes as a universally shit education experience in my book of definitions.

It is not necessarily the fault of the teacher that their student receives a sub standard education. Some of these teachers have no business teaching a subject which is beyond the range of their knowledge and expertise. The schools they work for, pushed by government targets, put them into untenable positions. And do not provide the necessary support. That is what I have a problem with.

Good practice does exist but it is far too rare and until schools stop ‘fire fighting’, get radical and throw out the status quo, that will not change. The excuse that it is ‘too hard’ is exactly that. An excuse. And a poor one at that. Saying that change is difficult and using it as a reason to continue providing a sub standard education is a disgrace to our profession. This is not necessarily something that teachers on the ‘shop floor’ can change alone. But it is something that head teachers and governors should be working towards and too many of them are not.

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Report on OFSTED publication: Mathematics – Made to Measure (May 2012)

I wrote this report for my own CPD, but did you ever wonder with maths teaching in state schools is universally shit? Here’s the answers in my notes on the OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, UK) report on Mathematics Teaching. This was published last year, May 2012: 

Notes on the ‘Mathematics – Made To Measure’ report from OFSTED (May 2012)

8th March 2013

From reading this report, I have identified several key areas and reasons why mathematics teaching is systematically failing pupils within the state school education system, all of which impact onto teaching, learning and achievement within the Functional Skills mathematics programmes which form part of the apprenticeship pathway. These include:

·         A lack of subject specialist teachers, especially for younger pupils and low achievers in secondary school

·         No examination or how or why mathematical theory works and an over reliance on memorising techniques without ensuring understanding

·         A lack of ‘full coverage’ within teaching mathematics, leading to topics being missed out from the curriculum

·  Major problems with the way that both teachers and examinations mark and grade achievement in mathematics

·       An over reliance on early entry into GCSE and the prioritising of C grade achievement over pursuit of A/A* grades

·    The attitude that anyone who is incapable of achieving a C grade is not worth extra time and attention

·      A lack of embedded teaching of mathematics within other areas of the curriculum

A lack of subject specialist teachers, especially for younger pupils and low achievers in secondary school

A common complaint from work based learners who have not achieved success in mathematics at school is that the quality of the teaching and attention they received at school was lacking. The report backs up this self assessment and offers reasons as to why this disparity of provision has arisen.

The ability to achieve in maths is not encouraged in those who develop at a slower rate. The report notes that the attainment of a child at 16 years of age ‘can largely be predicted by their attainment at age 11, and this can be tracked back to the knowledge and skills they have acquired by age 7’[1]. It’s not unreasonable to expect that weaknesses in ability and understanding at a young age would be picked up and developed at a later stage during a child’s education, but this is not the case and too many children are experiencing a sub standard level of education, and therefore understanding and achievement in mathematics, as a result of the distribution of resources within state education, especially at secondary level.

The report notes some extremely that ‘Secondary pupils in lowest sets received the weakest teaching during inspections’[2] and 36% of the 2011 cohort achieved a D grade or lower in their GCSE examination[3]. This is in spite of the frequent use of resits, early entry and double entry for GCSE maths examinations. Less experienced, temporary and non-specialist teachers were more likely to teach lower sets or younger pupils[4] and one in seven lessons observed within these sets was judged to be inadequate[5]. Nearly half of the schools observed had some inadequate teaching for mathematics[6]. Teachers are struggling to improve their skills in teaching mathematics and very few schools are willing to provide curricular guidance for staff[7].

Those pupils who are preparing for external examinations, especially the high achievers, were more likely to receive better teaching from subject specialists, but the younger and less able pupils were more likely to be taught by non subject specialists, allowing schools to reserve those teachers which such skills for the higher KS4 sets, where the subjects being covered would be outside the expertise of a non specialist[8].

The weaknesses were not solely confined to subject knowledge, significant issues were identified within teacher confidence. Two lessons were observed where inaccuracies and alternative methods were identified by pupils and brought to the teacher’s attention only to be ignored and left un-tackled by the teachers in question.[9] There were even examples of teachers using incorrect explanations for their classes which did not relate to the real life use of mathematics.[10] Correct work was sometimes marked as incorrect or mistakes were unnoticed and work was marked as correct, and some pupils were given insufficient guidance by teachers as to how to utilise mathematical presentation to ensure that their working out was correctly completed.[11] Teachers were not solely to blame, teaching assistants were identified as being lacking in their skills and confidence to tackle pupils’ understanding of mathematics and were not providing sufficient challenge, particularly in the lower key stages.[12]

The report notes that there is ‘no quick fix’ for some of the issues identified which are leading to poor maths teaching, but short term planning is essential to support non specialists and these plans and approaches should align with what is used by others in the mathematics departments[13].

The outlook for this is not hopeful, as even the subject leaders at primary school did not teach noticeably better than the other teachers. The report even notes that ‘it is no longer the case that the subject leader is necessarily the most experienced and skilled teacher of mathematics in the school’ and some of those subject leaders ‘do not have sufficient depth of subject knowledge’ and they ‘lack confidence in and experience of mathematics across the primary age range’[14]. If the teaching of mathematics is being guided by people who are not qualified, experienced or confident in delivering the subject, the hopes for children reaching secondary school on target for achieving their potential are slim at best.

The result of this combination makes it entirely possible that a child who does not received mathematics tuition from a subject specialist in primary school, and who therefore does not make adequate progression and is placed in a low set at secondary school, will not actually received any tuition from a subject specialist throughout their school experience. From the age of 4 to 16, it is entirely possible that a child’s experience of mathematical education will be defined by teachers who are not confident, sufficiently educated or experienced in delivering mathematics lessons, with no opportunity to rectify the damage that a poor experience at a young age may cause. 

No examination or how or why mathematical theory works and an over reliance on memorising techniques without ensuring understanding.

The report notes that secondary school pupils, by and large, accept mathematics as ‘important but dull’ and that relatively few schools bothered to seek their pupils’ views on that makes mathematics learning successful[15]. A key quote from a pupil surveyed by OFSTED notes that “you need to understand and not just do it. You think you know how to do it but you get to an exam and you can’t. You realise that nobody’s told you why it works and why you do what you do, so you can’t remember it.’[16] This simple fact is the root of many problems in learning mathematics, particularly within the largely kinaesthetic learning sector of work based learning. Understanding the reasons behind mathematical processes and being able to relate them to real life examples and needs are key to the success and progression of our learners. Many weaknesses were identified in maths teaching at state secondary schools, which indicated that the teachers did not understand the reasons behind mathematical processes either. The best practice identified was where ‘wrong answers were welcomed as an opportunity to explore how a misconception had arisen. Pupils did not fear making mistakes as they too recognised how unravelling an error helped their understanding’[17].

Many of our work based learners actively fear learning, especially when it comes to the traditionally academic subjects of maths and English. Sometimes their fear is expressed as disinterest, sometimes as reluctance, or a chronic lack of self confidence. Sometimes it even presents as anger. Tackling a fear of failure, combined with a thorough explanation of the ‘why’ factor of mathematics is the key to settling learners and opening their minds to the concept of learning.

The report notes that pupils regularly experienced lessons where the sense behind mathematics was not explained to them or developed collaboratively with them[18]. These are the bad habits that we are required to unpick within work based learning in order to enable our learners to achieve at level 1 and at level 2.  School lessons are not generally active. They are largely focused on listening to the teacher, copying down examples and questions being answered by the academic elite of the class, leaving the majority as silent spectators. These lessons are highly focussed upon visual and audio based learning. The vast majority of work based learners enrolled on apprenticeships will respond better to kinaesthetic activities, where they are encouraged to attempt examples for themselves, step by step. One to one teaching is an excellent facilitator for this type of teaching, as it allows for the learning to be broken down into steps with close contact from the tutor, allowing the learner to feel secure. Asking to learner to explain their reasons for the steps in their working out in another excellent way to embed their understanding. It forces the learner to admit when they are guessing and gives the tutor a clear indication of when a piece of learning has been fully embedded into their understanding.

The report notes that school teachers are particularly poor at allowing pupils ‘thinking time’: ‘Sometimes they were too quick to prompt or to answer their own questions…rather than leaving time for pupils to work out the first step for themselves.’[19] Leaving time for the learner to think about their response or approach to a question, whether verbal or audio, is crucial. Tutors must learn to be comfortable with silence, allowing thinking time and giving the learner chance to make mistakes and correct themselves. Highlighting areas where pupils are struggling, and encouraging pupils to identify those areas for themselves, are both crucial to furthering progression. Until a problem is identified, a solution cannot be approached. This, rather than the dictation of a mark scheme, is why the recording of working outs for maths is essential to assessing a learner’s progress. Sadly, new software which has been developed for homework purposes allows pupils to enter the answers to set tasks without displaying their working out, meaning that the teacher has no chance to assess their independent use of the methods for working out[20].

The report notes that this is still a weakness in schools, and that whilst teachers created opportunities for assessing pupil prior knowledge, they ‘varied in how well they interpreted the clues in pupils’ work and oral responses to pinpoint their difficulties precisely’[21]. If a learner does not understand why they are making mistakes, or why their mistake does not fit with the process, they will never develop the independent ability to correct their own work. Identifying errors could, in the hands of a skilled teacher, lead to the identification of misconceptions, which once corrected could be used to enhance a pupils understanding[22].

However, it was noted that teachers were missing opportunities to link topics together effectively. Topics were tackled ‘without any connection being made’ and pupils did not appreciate the links between various topics. They were reduced to ‘memorising methods, because teachers emphasised emulating the worked example rather than why the methods worked.’[23] Topics must be linked together to enable learners to understand the breadth of mathematics as a subject. It was noted that tackling more than one part of a subject at once can cause confusion if these links are not made clear and explicit. The report cited an example of a lesson on area and perimeter where pupils were confused about what aspect of a diagram each measure. The report recommends that introducing the two concepts at different stages will ‘avoid such confusion’[24]. Whilst time is of the essence when teaching work based learning, there is still a lot to be said for a well structured lesson where concepts are introduced, tackled and explained one at a time, and where learning on a single aim is consolidated before introducing a second, which is then linked back to the prior established learning. Whilst functional skills may require the learner to select from a range of skills, those skills still need to be tackled and familiarised individually, and then linked together once understanding is confirmed, before an appropriate selection can be made.

The report also noted that poor presentation could contribute to both a lack of understanding on the part of the pupil and missed opportunities on the part of the teacher to identify common errors and weaknesses in a pupil’s work and therefore their understanding. OFSTED noted that ‘no attention was given to how well work was set out, or whether correct methods and notation were used’[25]. Notation is important, especially for measurement and finance, as this links the mathematical process to a real world concept. Enforcing the correct use of ‘£’ and ‘p’ within financial sums can enhance a pupil’s understanding of decimal places, and insistence upon the use of metric notation for measurement will enable a pupil to become more familiar with the metric system, especially if they did not learn the system whilst at school and have a primary familiarity with the Imperial systems of measurement. Bad habits in marking were also identified, where correct work appeared to have been marked incorrectly and vice versa, leading to confusion for pupils as to what they had accomplished in class and at home. Teachers comments were also more likely to refer to the quantity of work completed rather than the quality of the working or presentation[26].

A lack of ‘full coverage’ within teaching mathematics, leading to topics being missed out from the curriculum

Closely linked to the concerns about a lack of ‘joined up thinking’ in teaching maths is the absence of significant parts of the curriculum at school. The report noted that changes to the A level syllabus in the last ten years have ‘reduced the demand and breadth of content studied.’[27] However, there are times particularly at GCSE where the syllabus, regardless of its content, is not actually taught fully. This is in part due to flaws in the marking system for GCSE mathematics and the way in which the questions are allocated marks: ‘Part of the problem is that external assessment in mathematics…is generally based on a compensatory model: success with some questions in a test or examination compensates for poor performance on others, irrespective of the relative importance of the topic being assessed.’[28] The issues with the marking schemes and tracking that stem from this issue will be discussed more in the next section of this summary, but the main issue caused by this simple fact is a sense of complacency amongst maths teachers, even when teaching the brightest learners and most particularly when teaching the lower ability learners.

The report notes that ‘demanding algebra topics were too often a casualty of the limited time for completing GCSE’[29], especially in those schools who pushed learners to complete their exam by the end of year 10 instead of year 11. The ‘very strong emphasis’ on external assessment and performance measures by schools means that a rounded and thorough mathematical education is skipped over in favour of teaching to the test requirements, or rather teaching to the pass mark requirements. In schools which were deemed ‘less effective’, the full GCSE was not covered, and some topics were only tackled in a superficial way. The drawbacks of this approach have been noted by the pupils, as well as by OFSTED, as one was heard to comment about not studying any algebra during year 11 and another was heard commenting on the lack of depth in the GCSE study.

An over reliance on early entry into GCSE and the prioritising of C grade achievement over pursuit of A/A* grades

Pupils are frequently pushed to achieve C grades, and were even ‘accelerated’ to free standing maths qualifications after achieving B or C grades, rather than being encouraged to study for the additional year to achieve an A or A* grade.

Whilst this may only seem to affect a small proportion of learners, the implications for work based learning and the apprenticeship system are immense. With C and B grades expiring after five years, the early taking of these examinations at the expense of a learner’s ability to achieve an A grade is leading to a greater number needing to refresh their skills by taking the Functional Skills aspects on their apprenticeship. A learner who passes their maths GCSE with a C or even a B grade at the age of 15 will find their qualification defunct by the age of 20.  This focus on external assessment and the exploitation of the compensatory marking system has lead to a culture of ‘home grown underachievement’[30] in secondary schools. The combination of these two facts will eventually lead to increased demand, and increased disaffection, for learners in the apprenticeship system.

Major problems with the way that both teachers and examinations mark and grade achievement in mathematics

The problems with compensatory marking are not limited to GCSE, and they have implications for Functional Skills too.

At level 1, three tasks are completed with 15 marks available for each one. The average pass mark is around 60%, which equates to approx 30 marks. It is therefore possible to completely fail one of the tasks, a whole third of the subject area and to still pass the paper. At Level 2 this is exacerbated further. Three tasks are completed with 20 marks available for each one. The pass mark can be as low as 50%, just 30 marks. It is possible to fail one task and only achieve half marks on a second and still achieve a pass at level 2.

Learners in mathematics become adept at focussing their efforts into their areas of strength and they are trained into this habit throughout the state school education system.

The problem with compensatory grading and specific topic achievement starts with the tracking system for pupils in primary and early secondary school with national curriculum levels. The most common way of tracking is for a teacher to assess a piece of marked work and assign it a curriculum level. However, the nature of mathematics content is ‘hierarchical’, and many individual topics are assigned discrete levels, and each level is made up of a range of topics. Success in one particular area does not mean that a pupil has achieved competency across a whole level, and it is not always possible to enhance understanding of a topic to a further level without acquiring a completely new set of learning: ‘for example, work on circumference and area of circles is generally considered to be a level 6 topic. Incorrect or misunderstood levels cannot be called ‘level 5’.’[31]

From as early as Key Stage 1, the tracking and marking systems for mathematics are not compatible with the continuous progression of achievement favoured by standard methods of education. A sample piece of work does not give a true idea of a learner’s ability across the mathematics curriculum.

This has a knock on effect to our diagnostic grading system. Whilst a learner may achieve mid level 1, or even high level 1, the diagnostic test may still highlight key weaknesses in areas such as perimeter and area, mean and range or percentage calculation, all of which must be mastered before a learner can be guaranteed to pass level 1. The only way to assess the usage of those topics in combination, and to assess a learner’s ability to select an appropriate method to tackle an exam question, is to set them a mock exam. This largely makes the diagnostic tests redundant, as they do not indicate accurately whether a learner can independently assess a functional problem and select from a variety of methods to ensure that the task is completed effectively.

The attitude that anyone who is incapable of achieving a C grade is not worth extra time and attention

It is a common claim from learners on the apprenticeship system who did not achieve in maths and English at school: ‘I was in the bottom set at school and nobody cared about us.’ Whilst it does sound dismissive on the part of the learner, possibly simplistic and a little beyond belief, sadly the OFSTED report holds up their complaints in spectacular fashion.

The report notes in its introduction that intervention programmes of support need to be extended to ‘all pupils who were in need of support, not just those at key borderlines or about to take national assessments’[32]. It is hard to believe that a school would prioritise the welfare of some pupils over others when it comes to the provision of support, but there is strong evidence to indicate that this is happening and that it is a widespread problem.

The report highlighted the tendency for subject leaders to teach the ‘higher attaining’ sets in Key Stage 4 (aged 14-16). However, ‘it was also the case that the lowest attaining pupils needed to make the most progress and therefore required the best teaching, but too often did not receive it. This is why in-school consistency in the quality of teaching is such a concern’[33]. It is a bold statement and highlights a widespread problem, namely that: ‘pupils in the lowest sets typically learn less well, make less progress and attain low grades’[34] and this is, in the vast majority of cases, down to the quality of teaching and instruction they receive, which is more likely to be sub standard in the lower sets and across the low ability range. 

Many schools were noted to be struggling to place subject specialists in all classes and priority was given to the key examination classes and high attaining students. Non specialists, temporary teachers and new teachers were more likely to lead the teaching of lower set classes. Timetable constraints sometimes meant that two teachers would share responsibility for a  younger class. OFSTED specifically noted in their report that ‘in general, this does not aid coherent progression or good quality learning.’[35] A lack of consistency and conflict of methods would only serve to exacerbate the issues identified in earlier sections of this report, making it more likely that work will be mismarked, misunderstood and incorrectly assessed.

The vast majority of learners who enter the apprenticeship system in work based learning have not achieved level 2 at school, meaning that they are probably lacking a C grade GCSE in mathematics. If they were predicted to achieve less than a C grade in maths at school, their chances of receiving support to achieve those grades are not necessarily universal, as can be seen in the following diagram, taken from page 52 of the report:



The above diagram analyses a learner’s predicted performance at GCSE. Those in the central triangle are already on course to achieve Level 2 (5 A-C grades including maths and English). The intersects with two overlapping triangles are the pupils most likely to receive support, those who are on course in maths and/or English, but missing one of the other key criteria. Those in the single shaded area are next, if they are on course for one of the criteria, but missing the other two. Any success within these areas would lead to an increased league table position for the school and better chances of attracting further pupils to attend in future.

The diagram’s labels do not make it clear but there is a fourth category. Those outside of the Venn diagram. The pupils who are predicted to achieve less than 5 C grades in total, and who are not expected to achieve C grades in either maths or English. These are the learners who are most likely to be in the bottom sets across their education, and they are the least likely to receive support to raise their achievement levels: ‘Those placed outside the three circles …were least often the focus of support in the schools visited’[36] Perhaps most worryingly of all is the tendency to treat all pupils who are expected to achieve less than a C as being the same. The report noted that ‘too many pupils were gaining F grades when they had the potential to achieve D or E grades. These pupils were the least confident and self motivated’[37]. Because it makes no difference to a school’s league table results whether a pupil achieves a D grade or an F grade, the focus on teaching quality is absolutely removed from those who have been deemed as unlikely to achieve a C grade. Standards slip further and no encouragement is given to pupils within this category to improve their achievement within the lower sets.

The benefits of setting are not universally beneficial in the first place. Some research points to the benefits being restricted to the more able pupils, with adverse effects on other pupil’s motivation and self confidence, particularly girls[38]. For an industry with an intake which is heavily weighted towards women, this is startling news. The set a pupil is placed in ‘determines the mathematics he/she will encounter and potentially caps what he/she might attain’[39]. With subject coverage already being in doubt due to the issues with the marking schemes and compensatory system, placing a pupil in a lower set and reducing the coverage of the curriculum even further reduces their chances of being able to catch up and progress to a higher set later in their school life. ‘Senior and subject leaders appeared to realise, perhaps too acceptingly, that ground would need to be made up in future if the pace of learning of younger and lower attaining pupils was affected by weaker teaching.’[40] However, it would appear that pupils are rarely given the chance to achieve this making up of ground. Being placed in a low set at an early age, perhaps due to incorrect or inaccurate grading or poor quality non specialist teaching in primary school, can condemn someone to a poor quality mathematical education, with no chance to extend achievement or improve attainment.

The lack of confidence, of both teachers and pupils, and poor attainment, by both teachers and pupils, endured by many apprenticeship learners has its roots deep within the school system and the complaints they voice about being placed in a low set and ignored, or struggling against a teacher who did not have a thorough understanding of the subject, should not be dismissed or ignored when they have been identified as common place and widespread problems, particularly in the secondary school system.

A lack of embedded teaching of mathematics within other areas of the curriculum

Whilst only touched upon in passing in this report, this idea has massive implications for the embedding of Functional Skills within the apprenticeship programmes. OFSTED noted that the implementation of Functional Skills had been ‘dogged with difficulties’ and many schools had ‘struggled to make adequate preparations.’[41] Much like many apprenticeship programmes, schools were treating it as a ‘bolt on activity rather than understanding that the development of these skills is part of behaving and reasoning mathematically, and therefore pervades good learning of mathematics’[42]. The integration of mathematics into the wider curriculum is failing. With the abolition of GCSE coursework, pupils are not being given the opportunity to investigate tasks using a wide range of mathematical approaches and independent learning is not being adequately embedded. ‘A lack of emphasis on using and applying mathematics remained a weakness that is persistent’[43].                                                                                      

Unless mathematics is integrated into the wider curriculum, with investigative techniques being encouraged in subjects such as science, geography, design and technology, mathematics will continue to be seen as a standalone subject with little relevance to the real world. The use of mathematics must be integrated more fully into the apprenticeship system, with assessors being willing to encourage and suggest the use of mathematical processes within the teaching of modules, as an integrated process supported by a specialist teacher if necessary. Much like in schools, Functional Skills Mathematics is still seen as a ‘bolt on’ activity, rather than an important and embedded aspect of work based learning.

 A link to the direct report is provided here: 


The footnotes refer to page references within the original report.

[1] p8

[2] P4

[3] P6

[4] P9

[5] Ibid.

[6] P22

[7] P9.

[8] P20-21

[9] P22, p26-27

[10] P29

[11] P43

[12] P33-34

[13] P50

[14] P56

[15] P19

[16] Ibid.

[17] P24

[18] P26

[19] Ibid.

[20] P40

[21] P36

[22] Ibid.

[23] P79

[24] P34

[25] P40

[26] Ibid.

[27] P14

[28] P15

[29] P67

[30] P83

[31] P37-38

[32] P7

[33] P56

[34] P19

[35] P65

[36] P52

[37] P84

[38] P65

[39] Ibid.

[40] P66

[41] P46-47

[42] P47

[43] P46

*[Got something to say? Submit to Project Shandy]*

Mathematics and other rants

(Americans – I’m British. I say Maths, not Math. Just for the sake of this article, please deal with my Britishness)

I saw this article on the news yesterday: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-17224600

Poor numeracy ‘blights the economy and ruins lives’

I work in the UK as a teacher of Adult basic skills for Literacy and Numeracy.

What this means, in practice, is that I go into the work place and do one-to-one or small group sessions for people during the working day to help them learn how to read, write, spell correctly, use punctuation and grammar, add up, subtract, multiply, divide, use decimal points and calculate using simple processes and mathematical constructs such as ratio, percentages, fractions and decimals. We also look at shape and space, graphs and metric measurements.

In 6 months I can raise someone’s attainment level from Entry Level to Level 1 in both subjects, with a 1 hour lesson every 2-3 weeks. In another six months I can raise their attainment from Level 1 to Level 2, with the same 1 hour lesson every 2-3 weeks.

Level 2 is the equivalent of A-C grade attainment at GCSE. For Americans, that’s roughly the equivalent of a 3.0 GPA at the end of Sophmore Year at High School (or so I have been told). In the UK, our children leave compulsory education at 16 at the moment, although this is in the process of being raised to 17 and then 18.

Our government has just announced the end of funding for Basic Skills adult numeracy and literacy. So the courses I teach will no longer be free, or indeed available through most examination boards. The courses that are going to replace them require 6 times as much contact time. At present I can teach one level in both literacy and numeracy with as little as 11 contact hours. The new courses will require as a bare minimum for the course to be valid 36 contact hours. Per subject. That’s 72 hours. Almost 7 times as many lessons.

This model will not be viable for the workplace. People do not want to take that much time out of their work. Staffing levels are already being cut in most places and people are stretched to the max already without losing someone from their staff ratio to sit and do lessons for an hour.

And I am left in despair.

I have mentioned before some of the reasons why I love my job so much. I have blogged about it in the past. But I would like to say more. About how I teach, why it works, how it overcomes some of the ingrained issues that our nation has when t comes to maths and why the government is making a big mistake by removing this model of teaching from its funding remit.

There are several myths about mathematics especially, which I have traced back to various roots during my time as an adult teacher. Let’s start with the most common:

* You don’t need maths to survive

Ah yes, the last bastion of the beligerent and desperate. Let’s think about this for a moment. How do the maths constructs that I am using relate to every day life.

You want to be able to manage your money and work out your wages, taxes, budgets and interest and check that your spreadsheets for all of those make sense? Then you need to understand decimals and percentages, and to be able to combine skills for addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. Money is a decimal. You use it every single day. Try telling me you don’t need the basic skills to do that.

You want to work out the special offers in the shops? You need to understand how percentages work. You want to work out what the interest is on loans, mortgages, etc? You DEFINITELY need to know how percentages work!

You want to work out how far your food will stretch and how much it will cost you to cater a birthday party for your child or a function at the office? You need fractions. (As a side note, fractions is the aspect of maths that I hate, and so I use decimals and percentages instead. But I know how to convert them and work around that, so that is another skill that I teach…)

You want to work out your basic rate and overtime pay? Or do you have a mileage claim with two different levels of repayment? Or perhaps you are in charge of the pay rosta where you work? You need to understand basic formulae.

You want to work out how many staff you need on rota in your school or nursing home to cover the legal minimums of staff to client cover? Or how much bleach to use in your cleaning mix? Or how much screenwash to water for your car? Or even how much squash to put in your kids’ drinks? You need to understand ratio, how it works and how to calculate using it.

Yeah you could buy it premixed. But I bet you it’s more expensive. Oh, but you’d need fractions and percentages to check that wouldn’t you… Silly me…

You want to know how many packs of bathroom tiles to buy? Or how much carpet you need? Or how much skirting board you need? Or how much paint you have to buy to repaint your house? Or how much guttering you need to fix that hole? Perhaps you just want to make sure you weren’t overcharged for those things by the guys who came to measure and decorate your house. Bring on the need for understanding perimeter, area and volume.

If you work in any sort of office job or sales job, or if you run your own business, I guarantee you will need to know how to read and construct bar charts, pie charts and line graphs. You’ll also need to know the difference between mean, mode, median and range to forecast your outgoings and income, analyse your stock trends and figure out the needs of your market.

Are we getting it yet?

What I teach isn’t trigonometry. Or advanced calculus. Or Pythagoras’ Theorem. It covers every day skills to help people get on in life without feeling like they have to pay someone to do their mathematical thinking for them. Yes you might have a calculator or a spreadsheet. It will not help you at all if you don’t know what order to press the buttons in or what to type in the little boxes to make those formulae work (hey, we’re back to formulae again, maybe we do need algebra…)

* I just couldn’t do maths at school, my teacher said I was rubbish

If your teacher ever, ever, EVER said that about you or to you, they need a really good kicking.

I am quite serious.

Every time I start my first lesson with a new student, particularly one who is nervous, I ask them whose problem it is if they don’t understand something.

Most of them think it is theirs.

I shock them by telling them it’s mine.

If my student doesn’t understand something, I need to teach it a different way. Perhaps they need a memory phrase to chant. Or a simple picture. Or something with colour. Or a flow chart. Or a step by step chart. Perhaps I need to use Socratic Method. Maybe, just maybe, I need to allow them to get it wrong a few times and get them to explain their method to me.

With the exception of one student who had significant learning difficulties, I have yet to have a single adult student who could not perform basic maths functions and understand basic maths principles by the time they had finished their course with me. In some cases it may have taken more lessons, or more homework, or more time. It may have taken three or four different methods of explanation. I spent three lessons with one lady teaching her how to write out numbers in the thousands and millions. We tried no less than 5 different methods. Method number 5 worked and she now writes all of the cheques for her husband’s business.

If your teacher told you that you were rubbish at maths, that was not a weakness on your part. That was a failure on their part because they were not willing to take the time to find the right way to teach you. Or it was a failure on the school administration’s part for not allowing them the time or support necessary to help you in the way that you needed. It Was Not Your Fault and I wish you could come and do your course with me. I would open your eyes. As would any of my 4 teaching colleagues who hold the same view as I do.

With the exception of one or two sadistic assholes who have been described to me, I actually have a lot of sympathy with the teachers and think that more blame rests on the school administration and the government education policy of the time. Teachers are pushed hard. There is no back up and consolidate time. Just push forward and push forward and push forward and whoops-that-child-fell-behind-but-I-don’t-have-time-to-stop-and push forward…

Just listen to this for a second, especially you Americans:

In the UK we start our kids in compulsory education at a very young age. Free nursery places are funded for children from the age of 3. By the age of 4 they’re in reception class, which includes structured learning and in some cases children are already wearing an official school uniform. By the time I was 4 I was wearing full uniform including a school tie and lace up shoes, just like the Big Kids. At 5 they enter year 1, which is where targets and testing for literacy and numeracy kick in and teachers’ performances are assessed according to the test results attained by their charges in reading and numeracy.

From what I understand, in the US children don’t start at Kindergarten until the age of 5, and 1st Grade begins at 6? Is that right? So our children are being tested and having results recorded a full two years younger than those in the USA and most European countries. That’s why they leave 2 years earlier.

This is not a recipe for success. It is a recipe for paranoia. Many of my students who are adults have been weighed, measured and found wanting in their mathematical ability based on testing and scoring that was started when they were 4 years old. In some countries they would not have started primary education for another 3 years. That terrifies me. Not least because our education system is so pressured that there is no time to back up and re-explain a topic if a child does not get the concept. We don’t hold people back for grades/years here – we push them on to the next level and expect them to cope. And funny enough, those worries and fears and lack of understanding just turn from a snowball into an avalanche and people get buried.

And once I explain to them that their perceptions of their ability are massively out of context and out of whack – suddenly they start to breathe again, stop turning blue and possibly start to think that things might be different this time around.

* How am I supposed to know what all those words mean?

A massive failing in our education system is the lack of time in which to teach background knowledge. Simple things which, when viewed in context, open up the meanings of mathematical words.

For example, when I teach percentages, we look at the meaning of the word. Percent means ‘Out of 100’ or ‘For each 100’ – and Boom! Straight away people can see where that x100 or /100 comes from in the equation – the clue is in the name!

When I teach distance and measurements, we look at the latin roots of cent, mili and kilo. If people can remember what they mean, it can help them remember how to calculate with and convert metric measurments.

Again, if you were never told what the words meant, it’s not surprising that you were having difficulty with maths. I use memory tricks and examples for all types of averages, for perimeter, area, volume. I draw little diagrams to explain to people why those little sums work. And they never forget then. They remember their crazy maths tutor telling them how you freeze a swimming pool to get a big ice CUBE and that’s why water is measured in meters CUBED.

Learning maths is like learning how to play Monopoly or any other board game. If you came from another planet and were given the Monopoly set with no instructions, you could look at that board and those pieces all day with no clue what to do. But once somebody explains it and shows you how the board fits together, what the words mean and what the instructions mean – suddenly it’s easy and you wonder why you never understood it before.

* I never had to do this at school / This wasn’t for the likes of me at school

This one especially applies to women. And my teacher training threw up some shocking facts on this one.

The UK first introduced its national curriculum in 1991. Up until then, there was no official government mandate on what had to be covered in either primary or secondary education.

For primary education, common sense governed. But at secondary level, two major parts of UK education came into play.

The first was the existence of the 11+ exam.

The separation of children into academic and vocational teaching paths at the age of 11 was a standard educational tool in the UK for generations. It has been largely phased out, but there are still a few towns, cities and counties where the grammar system still exists. I live in one of them.

Academic courses such as Maths, Science, Languages, etc were compulsory in Grammar schools. They were not compulsory in secondary modern schools. This has lead, in the British mindset, to the conception that Maths is only for ‘Brainy People’ and has little relevance to everyday life. After all, if it was that important, it would have been taught everywhere, right?

Given that our Grammar system also largely favoured the middle classes, whose families had the time, living space and spare money to encourage their children’s education and support them, this preconception also broadened into the idea that Maths and its educational ilk were only for ‘Posh People’. The idiocy of this idea is one of the many reasons why I despise my country’s obsession with class and the idea of ‘knowing your place’. We are working on phasing that out. However, for the 30+, 40+ and sometimes 50+ year old adults that I teach, that is quite deeply ingrained and sometimes difficult to shift without telling my own life story. On the surface, I am a well spoken, presentable, academic, education, professional young woman who can drive and who is getting married and who has taken the decision to not have children. To the working class, manual labour, heavily accented, harrassed mothers who are working full time and who have the guts to sign up for this class, it must be quite difficult for them to swallow this toff nosed little girl telling them that being able to do maths is nothing to do with class…

But anyway, the Grammar exam was only part of the story. The other part of the story is the segregation of education by gender.

Because there was no mandatory coverage of education, up until as late as 1991 it was not compulsory for any girl to study mathematics at secondary education level (although it was usually the case at grammar schools). So, any woman who left school until as late as 1993 (to cover those who opted out of Maths in 1991 at the start of CSEs/O-levels) was not guaranteed to have studied any Maths from the age of 11, or to have sat any Maths qualifications at all. Ever.

Some did. But it was not compulsory. And so cannot be relied upon as a given. As I discovered the first time I said to someone in their late 30s ‘but you MUST have done this at school’, and she told me that no, indeed she hadn’t, and that was why she wanted to learn now.

There are reams and reams and reams of women, grown up women working full time and demanding jobs both in employment and in terms of being mothers and wives and household managers, who have never completed their education in maths. They were told, by our education institutions and government, that it wasn’t for ‘the likes of them’, that it ‘wasn’t for girls’, that it ‘was only for posh people’ and that ‘their husbands would sort out things like that’ – all of those are quotes from my students, past and present.

To return to the point…

My country’s governments, over several generations, have created this mess. They start schooling too young, they push too hard and our children are turfed out too early. They have allowed sexism and the class structure to determine who should be taught what, with the only elements of meritocracy featuring at 11, 16 and 18 years old. They are beginning to realise what a mess their adult work force are in regarding basic skills. I know this. I’ve read the government reports.

They had something going for them when they were funding the courses I teach. Free tuition in Literacy and Numeracy, taught in the workplace, taught one-to-one to build confidence and ability and positive relationships with tutors.

They have now stopped this funding and provision. And these people who were left high and dry in this mess are now being sent back to classrooms, for 6 times as long, for time they can ill afford to do courses which are not suitable to the needs they have.

Well done Coalition Government. You know, for all your fuckups I was championing your cause on your provision for Adult Education, even though you’re selling off our NHS, ruining our economy and not listening to your people. I championed you as having this success story. And now you’re getting rid of it.

You finally made a non-believer out of me.

And now I begin to despair.

*[Got something to say? Submit to Project Shandy]*