Maths is boring and hard. Or so children seem increasingly to believe, but David Newnham visits a school where skilful traditional teaching makes the subject popular and high-scoring
Drop into a Year 11 maths lesson at Langley school in Solihull, and you might be disappointed by what you see. At a time when the subject is generally reckoned to be in crisis, Langley's maths results are going from strength to strength. But search the classroom for handy hints and you will search in vain.
Sure, the mood is one of calm attentiveness; always a help when there are abstract concepts to explain. But you will see no interactive graphics here, or fun video games; no gimmicks at all, in fact. Just a teacher writing numbers and symbols on a board, and rows of students working on the sorts of problems that have exercised the minds of aspiring mathematicians since Pythagoras was a lad.
And yet the facts speak for themselves. Nationally, the popularity of what has traditionally been regarded as one of the most difficult subjects is at its lowest ebb, with numbers of A-level students falling by 7,000 in the past five years and teachers bitterly divided over what many see as an ill-advised attempt to "dumb down" the syllabus accordingly.
At Langley, by contrast, an increasing number of Year 10 pupils are opting to take their maths GCSE a year early, and last year's early-entry group achieved 18 A* passes, 12 grade As and a couple of Bs.
And when Langley students go on to sixth form college, which they do every year in large numbers (around 15 members of that early-entry group will be doing maths and further maths at A-level) they are already of such a high standard that they will have to be taught together, as a cohort.
Nor is Langley's mathematical success story just about high achievers, since the school's contextual value-added score for maths currently puts it in the top 1 per cent nationally. Seventy-six per cent of last year's Year 11 achieved A*-C grades in the subject. And this at what the sign beside the main entrance describes as a specialist college for the performing arts.
"When I was at school," says head Val Duffy-Cross, "maths was a subject to be feared. Yet here, it's something to be enjoyed. And if you walk down the maths corridor on a Friday afternoon at the end of a busy week, they will be fully focused and calm. You are not going to get children doing well in maths unless they have the calm and the space to think."
Clearly, though, there is more to Langley's success story than classroom discipline. And like any success story, the recipe turns out to have a number of ingredients.
"First of all, we try to go at the pace of the children, to match what they are able to do with what we deliver," says the head. "We do have early entry in Year 10, but only for those students who want to be entered early.
"It stops them being bored. And when some students get A* in Year 10, it sends out a strong message to other children that maths is not a scary subject, but one that is eminently achievable. As a result, there is a feeling of confident expectation throughout the school, and it is assumed by children and parents that maths is a subject that you will get.
"And then there is the work that goes on in primary schools before the children even get here. We have an advanced skills teacher who goes and works with our partner primaries and shows them the sort of methodology we use here. So there is continuity, and children don't feel as though everything they have learned at their primary schools was wasted."
A steady, linear approach to maths teaching is also a factor, the head believes. "Maths is taught in a way that says, if you follow these steps, you will be able to achieve it. You can do A, now let's move on to B. You can all do B, so let's move on to C.
"There is clear assessment and clear target setting. Every child knows what they have to do to move on, and staff are willing to help them do it. They stay after school on a regular basis to support students, and not just those who are expected to get high grades, but also those wishing to turn a D into a C."
And it's at this point that the plot deepens. For without question, one reason why such a steady approach is possible at Langley is the school's record of low staff turnover.
According to a survey conducted for the Mathematical Association in February, more than one in 10 maths teachers is suffering from exhaustion, stress or both, and as a consequence, staff retention is a serious issue for many schools. At Langley, by contrast, staff remain at the school for years, and levels of illness are low in the maths department. Students are rarely taught by supply teachers, so they have consistency and stability.
And the key to this happy state of affairs appears to be the unusually good atmosphere that pervades the school.
When staff here speak about Langley as somewhere special, they seem to be doing more than just talking the school up for the benefit of outsiders.
Their general regard for one another can be measured by the frequency with which groups of staff take holidays together, be it on the Isle of Wight or an apartment in Spain belonging to Janet Tyler, who retired at Christmas as head of maths after 24 years but who still works there part-time.
It would be extraordinary if this general sense of goodwill and wellbeing did not trickle down to classroom level. But how does it manifest itself in the teaching of maths, say?
"There's a mutual coaching relationship in the department which is highly effective," says Val Duffy-Cross. "I can't deny that there is competition, but it's a healthy competition. And there is an approach that says, 'You're better at that aspect of maths than I am; can I come and watch you do it? Or could you come and do it for my class while I take your class in the aspect that I'm good at?'"
Steve Tustain, head of maths, bears this out. "There are no egos in our department," he says. "And by that I mean I wouldn't feel at all embarrassed going to our advanced skills teacher and saying 'I'm stuck on this problem'."
He also thinks that the good maths results are partly a result of the school's strong pastoral system. "We have a mentoring scheme in Year 11, where numerous staff take a student under their wing and help them with time management," he says. "That supports the work that goes on in the classroom. It also means that we don't get disruptive behaviour. When I go into a classroom, I can go in and teach."
Mr Tustain is particularly proud of his Year 11 group, who took their GCSE last summer and are currently doing a level 3 additional maths unit, which is a bridge between GCSE and A-level.
"They were doing trigonometry and Pythagoras in Year 7," he says. "Now they're doing work they wouldn't normally see until Year 12. My eldest son is in that group, and four other members of staff have children in it. One day, some of them will be better at maths than I am. I couldn't pay for a better education."
Maths is the subject focus in Teacher magazine on May 19
HOW THEY DO IT
* Flexible pace: encouraging early GCSE entry sends out a message that maths is not to be feared. Year 10 entries in 2005 gained 18 A* passes, 12 grade As and a couple of Bs.
* Steady, linear approach to teaching, with clear assessment and clear target setting for individuals.
* Liaison with primary teachers on preferred maths methodologies by Langley's advanced skills teacher of maths.
* Low staff turnover and illness, springing from a happy school atmosphere and resulting in consistency and stability for students.
* Mutual coaching relationship in a department where nobody is afraid to show weakness.
* Strong pastoral system, supporting potentially disaffected students and promoting good discipline.
* Willingness among staff to provide lunchtime and after-school tuition to students in need.
IS MATHS IN CRISIS? WHAT LANGLEY TEACHERS SAY
Steve Tustain, head of maths: "Graduates need to be encouraged to go into the teaching profession. When I graduated in 1980, 17 per cent of maths graduates went into teaching. By 1990 that had gone down to 2 per cent. I think it boils down partly to money - a maths graduate who goes to work for British Airways has far higher earning potential - but conditions are also a factor. We see in the news about disruptive pupils and teachers being threatened and I think that puts people off. Having said that, I wish more graduates would look at teaching, because there's a lot of satisfaction in the job."
Bahman Sadr-Salek, advanced skills teacher: "Everybody's finding that primary teachers are unaware of what secondary teachers are doing, and vice versa. For example, they tend to think the examples in national strategy are the only way forward, rather than just an option. We had a girl here who took half an hour to do a division using chunking. Chunking is good for understanding what they're doing, but when we get to this level here, it's slow and inefficient."
Gary Crooks, maths teacher: "People have always been frightened of maths, and now there's a greater choice of subjects, so you can get an A in something that doesn't require so much brainpower. That said, the people who were good at maths still tend to go on and do maths. But the crisis is in the number of people teaching the subject. When I started teaching, it wasn't an all-degree subject. You just had to learn how to be a teacher.
Since then, the numbers have dropped."
Cheryl Wheeler, maths teacher: "We teach traditionally. They've got to know the facts and the methods. But I've got seven Year 11s coming back at 3pm on a Friday to do some extra work, so we must be doing something right. If they're willing to come, we're willing to stay. And pastoral work is a massive part of it."
Sharon Tonks, maths teacher: "It's about getting those disaffected youngsters on board and wanting to achieve the grades. I think the school generally is good at targeting that layer. And we make use of each other as a department."