Strategy steps up the pace

21st September 2001 at 01:00
As the numeracy drive moves up a gear, Steve Abbott looks at the issues now facing teachers and heads.

In April, every secondary school received around pound;3,900 from the Standards Fund to support developments in mathematics and literacy. Before long, the Government will want to see a return on its heavy investment in the key stage 3 strategy. What does this mean for maths departments?

All schools received Standards Fund allocations for KS3 maths to cover nine supply days for the summer term training courses, and four more to allow teacher release. Judiciously used, this can support a fair amount of development work, so some improvement will be expected.

For schools receiving direct support from consultants there is additional funding and training and therefore an expectation of greater improvements in teaching and learning.

Initially, leaders of the strategy anticipated a cool reception from classroom teachers, but expected most headteachers would welcome the support for school improvement.

For maths at least, they were wrong on both counts. Most teachers who attended the three-day training were very positive about the planning framework for maths and the focus on direct interactive teaching. At the start of the new academic year, many maths departments are making concerted efforts to improve their planning and to incorporate ideas such as three-part lessons.

So far the reception from senior staff has been less enthusiastic. To be fair, it is not surprising that some accord the key stage 3 strategy a low priority: many had finalised this year's school improvement plans before the strategy was launched.

In any case, heads are reeling from initiative overload and many feel that national strategies leave insufficient time for school-specific developments. Therefore, some maths departments must first convince their own senior managers to support their efforts.

Yet the KS3 strategy is based on good practice. We know good teachers support their pupils' understanding by making connections between different aspects of mathematics. Therefore, much of next year's training for schools receiving direct support focuses on helping less experienced teachers develop the kind of subject knowledge that underpins connectionist teaching.

But first, departments need to audit themselves to establish their priorities for change. Effective departments may only need to tweak their existing practice.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is a danger that some schools will see the framework as a panacea, to be adopted rigidly and uncritically.

The trouble with large-scale attempts to promote good teaching is that much of the subtlety is lost in the difficult task of creating training packages. This is why mathematics consultants are being deployed. They will be helping schools to develop the capacity for self-improvement.

Though some of the strategy's critics fear that the framework is too prescriptive, its flexibility has been emphasised in the associated training. The framework is one model for planning. The three-part lesson is one approach to teaching maths.

They are both distilled from OFSTED observations (and some educational research) of what works well in schools. Most schools will want to make some accommodation of the ideas in the framework, but experienced teachers, mathematics consultants and inspectors will be aware that alternative planning models and lesson structures can be just as powerful.

Therefore, schools should seek to build on what they are already doing well and make intelligent use of the guidance on offer.

Ultimately, better teaching is a reaction to experience, involving reflection and critical thinking. The framework should be seen as a catalyst to speed up that reaction.

Steve Abbott is KS3 mathematics manager for Suffolk

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