How ‘everyone can’ succeed at maths

6th July 2016 at 11:39

Subject Genius, Tony Staneff, How 'everyone can' succeed at maths

I remember my initial meeting with my first head of department.  He had been head of subject for quite a few years and I felt I could learn a lot from him.  I went into the meeting as an enthusiastic NQT who was excited to find out as much as I could about the department and school.   My head of department was an exceptional leader of maths but I quickly discovered that he didn’t do schemes of learning.  When I asked what Y10 were covering he simply gave me the textbook and said “Do this”. 

At the time pupils in Y10 were all taught at the same time in sets from 1 to 10.  Set 1 was full of the so called ‘most able’ and set 10 were the ‘bottom set’ who just couldn’t do it.   I was given Set 5 in my first year and was told “They are doing foundation – they should aim for a D”.  The highest grade you could get on a GCSE maths foundation paper at the time was a D.  My Y10 group were my first lesson of the new school year and I was really excited to be teaching them.  I remember walking in the room with my briefcase in hand, as I entered the room they all stood up.  No one had told me that they would do – so this threw me a little.  I nervously said “You can sit down now”.

I did the register, went through my expectations and asked them what they thought of maths.  Most of them said they “didn’t like it” or said “they couldn’t do it”.  I wanted to change this.  The topic I had planned to teach the class was area of basic shapes.  I was ready to explain to them how to find the area of parallelogram and other shapes.  It was evident that they could already do this with ease and luckily I had planned to look at compound shapes too.  I realised quickly over the term that this group were not a ‘foundation’ group.  I decided early on that I wanted to do the intermediate tier with them.  This would give them the added motivation of being able to get a C.  I was nervous about telling the boss and was worried he would say I was a little too inexperienced to be questioning his decision.  I imagined him saying “Trust me they are a foundation group”.  In fact he said the complete opposite and encouraged me to push the group as far as they could.  I was really grateful for this and the result was that everyone in that group at the end of Y11 got either a B or a C. 

Ever since that experience I have believed that everyone can be successful in maths and I was told I was one of the catalysts for the improvement in results from 64% to 95% A*-C in mathematics over the course of my time at the school. 

16 years later and I now help lead the White Rose Maths Hub.  It is so exciting to be able to work with the other hubs around the country in our quest to transform maths education.  The mantra of our Hub along with all the other hubs is that everyone can succeed in mathematics.

Today is our ‘Maths: Everyone Can’ conference in Leeds where speakers like Dan Haesler and Barry Hymer will showcase their work and research in this field and delegates will hear from schools who are putting some of their work into action.  One of the many highlights of the day is the video we have created to try to let teachers, pupils and the wider public know that ‘Everyone Can’ succeed in maths and enjoy the subject. 

As a Hub we have been inspired by the work of Jo Boaler and others around the subject and Jo has kindly contributed to the end of the video.  The video sends the message that there’s no such thing as a ‘maths person’, you are not born with a maths brain.  Indeed anyone can learn how to be a mathematician just like anyone can learn how to ride a bike or swim.  We can all do this through hard work and practice.  Above all pupils need a teacher who believes that they can achieve and can show them that they can be successful in maths. 

I find it interesting, and frustrating, that there are still teachers at primary and secondary who will tell me where a pupil will be at the end of the year based on where they are at the start.  How can this be possible and fair?  Their mindset is already fixed and many of these pupils will never be given the opportunity to prove to the teacher that they are more than capable.  It will take a long time to change everyone’s belief but we have to start somewhere. 

We hope you like the video.  Our aim is to get schools across our region and wider to undertake their own week of inspirational maths in their schools sometime in September.  The aim of the week is to inspire pupils and show them that maths can be exciting and fun and that everyone can succeed. If you do it at the start of year it can hopefully set up a positive message for the rest of the year.  More and more schools are doing such a week and we hope many more will join us and all the other Hubs in celebrating mathematics and show how interesting and exciting it can be.


To get you started here are a few things you could do during your week of inspirational maths and then throughout the year:


  1. Show our video and the videos on to teachers and pupils. 
  2. Organise an assembly with each year group saying that everyone can do maths and that pupils are not allowed to say anymore “I can’t do it”.  Tell them that mistakes grow the mind.  If you can’t do an assembly, maybe you could do it during form time or as a maths department during the first lesson with each new group.
  3. Send a letter home to parents asking them to support the work you are doing and have a similar open evening where you celebrate maths and spread the message that ‘Everyone Can’.  See the letter/advice for parents on the GLOW maths website and sample letters on
  4. Produce vibrant number displays in classrooms and along corridors to show the importance of number.  The displays should not just feature numbers but plenty of visual representations as well.
  5. We should encourage pupils to be persistent and not allow them to give up when undertaking more challenging tasks.
  6. As teachers we should embrace mistakes and use misconceptions to deepen understanding.
  7. Let’s stop seeing maths as an unconnected set of objectives that we must simply just cover.  As teachers we must show the connections and how everything links together.  E.g. stop only using fractions when we are teaching fractions. 
  8. Take time to teach for depth, taking small steps one at a time.  We have tried to encourage this in our schemes of learning.
  9. Throughout the year ensure that we teach maths for meaning and understanding and not just as a set of facts that need to be remembered.  Visual methods and concrete materials often help pupils understand what they are doing.  Pupils will remember more when maths is taught for meaning.
  10. Ask questions that require pupils to reason and explain why and allow them to use diagrams and concrete materials to do so.
  11. Give pupils time to think about their solution to a problem and get them all thinking.   Daniel Willingham says that “Memory is the residue of thought”.  Ask them then to share their answer with the person next to them before sharing it with the whole class.  Get them into the habit of explaining why.    Remember that speed in not important. 
  12. Look at the five lessons on, the low floor, high ceiling tasks suitable for primary and secondary pupils and our own website also has some great resources and links. 


Over the course of the year we aim to release 8 more videos that go into more detail about some of these issues and help exemplify what the right kind of practice is.

We would love you to tweet us your classes saying ‘Everyone Can’ then in September feel free to show us examples of work from your own week of inspirational maths. 

Together we can change pupils’ perceptions of mathematics for the better.


For more inspiration and information please visit:



Tony Staneff is lead at the White Rose Maths Hub, and Vice Principal at Trinity Academy in Halifax.