STEM - Magic methods

20th May 2011 at 01:00
A sure-fire way to improve results in maths and science can seem as elusive as the Higgs boson particle, but some schools are making major breakthroughs. Steven Hastings reports

There are many ways to improve results. You can change teaching methods or the way you use data. But if you really want to turn things round quickly, then above all you need to change attitudes. "You have to create a buzz," says Neil Dunn, deputy head with responsibility for maths at Debden Park High School in Essex. "When I arrived here there was a 'can't-do' attitude. Maths was seen as a hard subject. Pupils would get to a question that they struggled with and just go into meltdown."

One of the first things Mr Dunn did was to lay on extra coaching, not for pupils - but for their parents. "Every time I came across a child with a block about maths, their parents always said the same thing: 'I don't expect him to be any good at maths - I never was.' So we got mums and dads into school, went over the basics with them, gave them materials to take away. Attitudes started to change."

Another key to overcoming the fear factor was getting pupils to see that the right answer wasn't the only thing that mattered. And Mr Dunn hit upon a novel way of doing that. "Girls tend to be more methodical in their working, while boys leap straight to the answer. So we encouraged boys and girls to work together, and to mark each others' test papers. The breakthrough came when some boys found that you could get every question wrong and still get a B, provided your methods were sound."

Results were impressive. In the first year, the number of children getting a C or above at GCSE went from 25 per cent to 51 per cent. This year, Mr Dunn expects it to be well over 70 per cent. But the real sign of success, he says, is the positive attitude towards the subject. "Every lunch break there are 30 or 40 pupils in the department - asking teachers for help, asking each other for help, or just doing maths for fun. That's the kind of buzz you need. If you get that, everything else will follow."

Susan Tilstone, head of science at the Archbishop's School in Canterbury, agrees that raising the profile of your subject is the first step to raising results. "You have to inspire children - and sometimes that's more easily done through enrichment activities," she says. At Archbishop's, where the proportion of pupils achieving two or more A*-C grades in science GCSE has risen from 47 per cent to 63 per cent in just two years, a series of whole-school events has "put science on the map".

A recent highlight was a "virus week" project, which simulated the spread of a contagious virus throughout the school, and there are also regular visiting speakers, competitions and trips - including a visit to the European Space Camp in Belgium. But not all of these opportunities are open to every pupil. "One of the best things I did was to create our Darwin Society," explains Ms Tilstone. "It's a science club which is only open to those who achieve at a certain level in class. That's created huge motivation. Everyone wants to know what they have to do to get in the Darwin Society."

Another way to improve motivation - and results - is to introduce a more vocational element to maths and science teaching. At Cator Park School in Bromley, south London, head of science Chris Adams has struck up links with the local hospital, and puts a lot of emphasis on areas such as medical physics. "Pupils need to see the relevance of science," he explains. "When you watch X-ray machines or CAT scanners in action, you see how physics changes people's lives."

And adding this vocational slant to GCSE work has led to a boom in applied science numbers at A-level. "Students now understand that there are careers in science other than being a doctor or a vet. We've had pupils go on to work in areas such as radiography."

Schools that have improved results significantly almost always have this focus on linking STEM subjects to career options. They also offer a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities, and make lessons dynamic and interactive, with more practical work, more discussion and fewer worksheets. Bring all these elements together, and the results can be dramatic. At Thornhill Community Science College in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, the number of pupils achieving two A*-C science GCSEs leapt from 16 per cent in 2007 to 80 per cent in 2010 after science leader James McGough began tailoring courses for both the academic and vocationally inclined students, and using more ICT in lessons.

There is one other common factor among schools that have seen this type of leap forward: shrewd analysis of performance data. "It's crucial," says Mr Adams. "Because science GCSE is very modular, we can step in as soon as someone is underachieving. We have some flexibility in timetabling, and can arrange extra lessons if there's a group that needs more help." So while the Government is pushing for a less modular approach, Mr Adams intends to stick by his methods. "We'll simply replace the modules with our own internal testing," he says. "We want to be able to track progress as precisely as possible."

And what works well at secondary level also seems to work with younger children. At Woodcot Primary in Gosport, Hampshire, the percentage of children reaching level 4 in maths rose from 46 per cent to 100 per cent in just three years. "The amazing thing is that we achieved that without a maths specialist," says headteacher June Kershaw. "There's no big secret. We analyse our data ruthlessly, we get children excited by their learning and take away their fear of mistakes. Get those things right and results will look after themselves."

The STEM master

Paul Preece's official title at Newquay Tretherras School in Cornwall is director of science and STEM. But to headteacher Sue Martin, he's simply "the man who makes things happen".

"I wanted more links between the different STEM subjects," she says, "so I restructured the senior management team to include someone who would have the authority to co-ordinate projects at a whole-school level."

In his new role, Mr Preece has instigated a number of projects that combine science, technology, engineering and maths. These include the school's bid to become an eco-school, and its entry into the Green Power Car Challenge, a national competition in which schools build and race electric cars. "It needs engineering, science and a fair amount of number-crunching," he says.

"The more you make connections between the subjects, the easier it is for students to appreciate the huge number of careers that come under the STEM umbrella. Here in Cornwall, there are very few STEM industries, so it's important to widen our students' ambitions."

Enthusiasm plus teamwork, minus complacency

At King Edward VI Community College in Totnes, Devon, maths results have improved significantly, three years in a row. But head of department Gareth Smith isn't complacent. "We're constantly looking for new ideas," he says.

"The key to raising results is to get the whole department working together - with lots of joint planning and lesson observations. The aim is always to make our lessons more thought-provoking. A few years ago we would have asked pupils to work out the area of a rectangle that is 6m by 4m. Now we ask them to work out the longest possible perimeter of an area that's 24m?. It's more challenging - and it's also more fun.

"STEM teachers need to be enthusiastic about their subject. It's easy to get bogged down in admin or behaviour issues, so instead, we start every departmental meeting by doing some maths together. It reminds us why we do this job - because we all love maths!"

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