There was a very interesting Dispatches on Channel 4 this evening, about the serious problems with Maths teaching in primary schools. It seems that under half of all Year 6 pupils go on to secondary school with basic numeracy skills, and that is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that under half of primary school teachers passed the independent basic Maths test commissioned by the programme.
One school decided to take a stand for the show: Barton Hill Primary School, in my home city of Bristol. With its results in Maths presently very poor indeed (in the bottom 4% of the country), the head teacher enlisted the help of Richard Dunne (looking kinda older, it has to be said. That’s what playing for Villa does for you. No, of course it’s not the footballer) – a retired but very enthusiastic teacher – to help the kids with their “Maffs”.
And what a revelation Mr Dunne was. Rather than continuing to confuse the children with talk of “units” for numbers, he embraced a real-life physicality of the subject by treating each individual figure as a cup, and getting the kids to physically move these cups around to form the answer to each question he set. This allowed the kids to understand the concepts behind what they were learning, rather than the previous method of teaching them, which was the parrot-fashion memory game that’s usually used to help with exams. Before long, the kids were able to answer the dividing fractions questions that they didn’t have a hope with at the start of the show.
Unsurprisingly enough, though, it was the exams – the SATs – that emerged to undermine Dunne’s efforts. For those obligatory Year 6 tests, the teachers had to abandon the “cups” method – which was producing promising results – to prepare the kids for the exams in the standard cramming manner over the course of many weeks. The result was that the same kids who had actually started enjoying Maths, once again grew to dislike it, and by the end of the show (part one of two), even the head teacher was starting to reel off stock lines from la-la land about how important the tests were. The teachers didn’t like SATs. The kids didn’t like them either. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland don’t have to do them. They disrupt teaching. Clearly, they’re a disaster.
But what Dunne showed, even for the short time that his methods were used in the classroom, was that how a subject is taught can be the real difference in achievement for kids from any background. I only hope that in part two of the show his methods can once again gain traction, as watching the kids rise above their previous apathy (and sometimes downright hatred) for the subject was rather inspiring to watch.
The programme raised deep and complex issues about the nature of testing pupils and the skills that primary school teachers need to inspire youngsters, but at its heart it was about the kids themselves, and how the right motivation can lead to results that at the top of the show seemed impossible.