Raymond Ross visits St Ninian's High in East Renfrewshire, where a whole-class approach to maths has improved overall performance.
Individualised maths teaching no longer adds up, if it ever did, according to one principal teacher whose department's recent results, firmly based on whole-class teaching, have been described as "making great strides forward".
St Ninian's High in East Renfrewshire has achieved its best ever results in Standard and Higher grades as well as being above average in both national testing and East Renfrewshire's own piloted standardised tests at Secondary 2. Already, nearby Barrhead High is looking to emulate its approach.
"There is no doubt that maths at St Ninian's is making great strides forward," says East Renfrewshire's education convener, Jim Fletcher. "There is a lesson here not just for our own schools but for further afield."
This year's Standard grade results at the school showed 94 level 1 passes (40 per cent of entrants) compared to 76 last year (32 per cent) and 65 the previous year (27 per cent). Higher results had 31 As (36 per cent of entrants), a jump from last year's 19.
A remarkable 91 per cent of S2 pupils have achieved the national target of level E in maths."Very few schools, if any, are achieving the recommended national target of 80 per cent, or even getting near it," says principal teacher Gerry McGuigan. "Yet we are getting 91 per cent."
The secret of St Ninian's success, according to Mr McGuigan, is "marrying in" different elements: getting the right courses and texts, promoting a structured homework regime, regular and individualised assessment procedures, and developing whole-class teaching. "Much more whole-class teaching is the way most maths teachers would want to go," he says. "It's just that we're further down the line than anyone else at the moment. Individualised teaching was fashionable for about 14 years, but all maths departments knew it wasn't really working. Too long was spent on administration and pupils were not retaining knowledge. It isolated them with their booklets and there was not enough pupil-teacher interaction."
Three years ago St Ninian's received an extra pound;8,000 from the local authority after an HMI report suggested it needed S1 and S2 course books. "We bought into the new edition of Nelson's Maths in Action. The previous edition had not been very good. As we were already using the same series for S3 to S5, this gave us consistency. Department courses were always all right, more or less. What we had to do then was target homework and assessment.
"We have tried to put greater emphasis on listening to the teacher in class, with the pupils working on that class lesson at home and then bringing in their homework to be corrected with the teacher the next day.
"Class time is spent listening and talking to the teacher, so that pupils will retain more information. The individualised method saw the teacher talking for only 10 minutes, giving a couple of examples, while the pupils then did more of their own examples from a book for the rest of the period. The teacher's time was not used effectively, even though he or she would check pupils' progress. In the whole-class approach the style is interactive. You are talking to and with the pupils. There is real class discussion."
At St Ninian's every pupil receives maths homework every day. "It's a fact of life at the school and every parent knows it," says Mr McGuigan. "We do give more homework than the average and there must be a clear link between this and improved attainment." The daily homework, marked in class, averages between five and 20 minutes for S1 to S3 pupils, 10 to 20 for S4 pupils and 15 to 30 minutes for S5. Also, there is "hand-in homework", signed by parents and marked out of class by the teacher. This is discussed individually with pupils and general problems arising are addressed in class.
For S1 and S2 hand-in homework is topic-based and involves half-an-hour's work per week or fortnight. S3 and S4's weekly hand-in homework demands 45 minutes, S5 and S6's one hour. On top of this, folder work for senior classes brings S4's weekly homework up to two hours and S5's up to three.
"Hand-in homework is high profile and if a pupil hasn't handed in, we chase it up and won't let it go. They have to hand in quality work because they have a week to do it. And we run lunchtime classes pupils can attend and can bring up any problems," says Mr McGuigan. "We have support study classes after school, where the topics are flagged up in advance so any pupil having difficulties in that specified area knows where and when to come. And our department members are always available over lunchtimes to talk individually to pupils."
St Ninian's also has a Calmat Software program with learning and self-assessment materials, developed by Glasgow Caledonian University. "This is individualised learning but it's an extra," says Mr McGuigan. "More importantly, we have revamped our assessment procedures. They are differentiated to suit different pupils' needs. We have increased the number and made them more detailed, much more targeted. You don't want to demotivate pupils by giving them a test that is too hard. You have to be realistic. For example, if a Standard grade pupil's work shows a Credit level 2 consistency, then you leave out the harder parts of Credit work and aim for that. If you push too hard and demotivate the pupil they could crash to a 4 or 5.
"Every test result goes home. Parents know how well their child is doing. The key is to test at the appropriate level".
Maths at St Ninian's is taught to mixed ability classes until the Christmas break in S2. Thereafter they are broad-banded, set more specifically in S3 and "tightly set" by S4. Teaching strategies are regularly discussed. "Almost every departmental meeting will be a team meeting," says Mr McGuigan, "with the emphasis on continuity. There are 13 teachers in the department and we will all teach, say, equations in the same way, so that a change of teachers will not confuse a pupil progressing through the school."
Although St Ninian's catchment area includes areas of priority treatment, it is "slightly above average on the social educational scale," as Mr McGuigan puts it. But he does not feel that this is a genuine performance indicator with regard to his department's progress over the past three years.
"Year after year we outperform other nearby secondaries like Williamwood and Mearns Castle with a much more middle class catchment area. They should by rights be outperforming us. But the opposite is the case."
A TYPICAL 55 MINUTE PERIOD AT ST NINIAN'S
The five minute period starter is a quick problem on the board when the pupils enter. Pupils know how to start without prompting.
Correction of daily homework takes five minutes, and a 10 minute mental arithmetic test is peer-marked. Problems are noted and praise given.
The 30 minute main lesson is interactive work on triangles. Using the overhead projector, Mr McGuigan demonstrates work on triangles and gets pupils to continue what he has begun. Pupils are corrected by other pupils as well as by teacher suggestions. It is interactive and friendly. Pupils pursue two other triangles in workbooks as Mr McGuigan goes round individually. He demonstrates how to solve one of the exercises causing general problems (in this case an angle of 110 degrees). Resolution is demonstrated. Exercises are based on one side of a given length and two given angles with which to construct the triangle. The main lesson closes with a teaser giving the pupils two sides and one angle with which to construct triangle. Teacher discusses one wrong example and then sees pupils individually.
Finally, a five minute teaser is the starting point for the daily homework.