As the long autumn term crawls towards the finish line, as well as rehearsals for the Nativity play, Christmas parties and gorging on Quality Street, in all probability someone somewhere is poring over end of term assessments and trying to divine how well Year 6 are going to do in their SATS in May. Data is mulled over for signs of promise in similar fashion to a fortune teller scrutinising tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. What does the future hold?
The more important question being, where performance is not yet as good as we would like it to be, what can we do about it?
Over the years we have used various different strategies to help children catch up where they have gaps – or sometimes chasms – in their learning. The front line strategy is, of course, making sure that classroom teaching is as good as it can possibly be, not just in year 6 but throughout the school.
I remember Sir Kevan Collins, now Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, when he was Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets, talking to us head teachers about the importance of getting our everyday provision right so that we don’t actually need to use intervention anywhere near as much.
He compared this to an imaginary situation where there is a children’s park located close to a cliff edge.
Unsurprisingly, children keep falling off the edge. As a result, the authorities get really good at rescuing severely injured children, their ambulance service is second to none and their A&E provision is superb.
However, no one thinks to actually build a fence at the top of the cliff, to stop children falling off in the first place!
We need to do all we can to build that fence, so that the number of children who need rescuing from mathematical muddle and misconceptions is as small as possible.
For this to happen, we need to make sure our staff are as knowledgeable as possible, and that we’ve provided them with the best CPD and resources to enable this to happen.
However, even with this, the likelihood is that there will be children who could do with an extra something to help them do as well as they can.
It’s not just about SATs; we want our children to go onto secondary school confident mathematicians who have the mathematical fluency to use the algorithms we have taught them effectively and efficiently to solve problems. We want children with both good conceptual and good procedural ability.
And probably most of us have children who need a little bit more preparation to obtain the fluency and make the conceptual connections between the different bits of mathematical thinking they almost-but-not-quite understand.
Over the years, we’ve used a range of different strategies to help these children. We’ve run after school booster classes run by our class teachers, we’ve bought in a maths specialist teacher to work with small groups or sometimes 1:1, we’ve purchased online programmes for children to practise at home.
All of these work well to some degree, but since both time and money are limited, there are limits to what can be achieved. Teachers – and children for that matter – can only attend so many booster classes.
I doubt many schools have enough money to employ an extra specialist teacher for more than a few hours a week – if that.
Online programmes can really help children build up their fluency, but often the children who use them enthusiastically and get the most out of them are the children who are already really skilled mathematicians.
This year we tried something different.
Over the past year I’ve written blogs for Third Space Learning , and used the selection of excellent resources and CPD material available on their online maths hub, but I hadn’t really considered using their 1-to-1 maths tuition.
When they suggested I could receive the online 1-to-1 maths tuition for 13 pupils in return for participating in filming some of their primary Maths CPD and as payment for writing my blogs, I didn’t initially jump at the chance.
The idea of children learning maths via a tutor situated thousands of miles away and accessed via a computer seemed rather impersonal to me. It’s not like they even saw their tutor, since they only communicated through the headsets they wore.
Might this be like the worst kind of call centre experience? Frankly, it seemed a bit weird to me and I wasn’t sure it would work. But then a friend told me how positively it had gone in her school and how incredible it was to eavesdrop on a session and hear a roomful of children all animatedly explaining their mathematical reasoning to their tutor through their headphones and how much the children enjoyed sessions and the difference it seemed to make.
So this September I decided to give it a go. Recalling Kevan’s cliff top and ambulance scenario, I wanted to concentrate our efforts mainly on our Year 5s. If we could make sure that their learning was really secure in year 5, then building on that in year 6 should be a breeze. Most of the children we targeted were hovering close to the expected level for their age, or maybe just inside it, but not yet securely. Alongside these children, we also included a handful of children with low attainment.
The way the Third Space Learning weekly maths programme works is that you are allocated one or two hourly slots at the same time each week, during which all pupils do the intervention simultaneously. When your slot is, depends on availability. The schools that book first get the choice of all the slots.
We were a bit slow of the mark but ended up with a 3pm-4pm slot which actually worked well for us. School finishes at 3:30pm but parents were all quite happy to collect their children 30 minutes later.
We timetabled a TA to supervise the session. She collects the children at 2:50pm and together they get the laptops out and headsets on and get logged in, ready for their session to begin at 3pm. Once they are all logged in, they are talking to their tutor within seconds. Soon, the whole room is buzzing with maths chat as each pupil interacts with their tutor, solving maths problems on screen. There is a big emphasis on pupils explaining their reasoning to their tutor; it’s definitely not just drilling through endless problems. Once the session is underway, the member of staff supervising has very little to do, so can get on with something else while the children beaver away.
Before the children started their weekly sessions, they all did an online diagnostic assessment (no tutors or headphones – just a series of questions). From this, the programme recommended the best programme for each child. We then set priorities from among the recommendations on a child by child basis. We chose to concentrate on number and place value, the four operations and fractions, decimals, and percentages, but there is a whole range of options we could have chosen.
There is also the option of the teacher deciding on a week by week basis what are the priorities for each child – I can imagine if we were doing this with year 6 that might be really useful to follow work in class, but we went for the ‘diagnostic’ option where we just assigned priorities at the beginning of the termly block and left the computer to work out what to teach, given their initial diagnostic performance and their progress in each session.
At the end of each session, the software produces a short report for each student that the class teacher can look at should they wish to. This shows what they were working on and how they did. For example:
We can see here that this child started the programme with some gaps in ordering and comparing. Indeed, the diagnostic assessment had identified this child as being slightly above the year 2 level in terms of this concept. On 19th October, the tutor, guided by the diagnostic assessment, initially selected activities at a year 5 level – ordering and comparing numbers to one million, to try and gauge where the gaps were.
This was very wise, since the child did very well in terms of counting and ordering powers of 10:
However she made slower progress with later parts of the unit, particularly with using < and > , partitioning bigger numbers and being able to say a number that lay in between two other larger numbers.
So the next session, (2nd November since school journey and half term intervened), the tutor decide to make sure that the year 3 objectives (ordering and comparing numbers up to 1000) were really secure, so any further work was built on really secure foundations. Then for the next 2 weeks they worked on ordering and comparing numbers beyond 1000, before finally returning to numbers to 1 million on 16th November. By now this is much more secure:
The tutor still does not think this child is quite fluent enough to sign this section off as total secure – hence the final assessment for this concept was emerging at year 5 level – but even so, that’s great progress considering the child started a few weeks early just beyond year 2!
We have also just finished our own end of term assessments (independent of Third Space Learning) and the great news is that this child has increased their standardized score from 103 to 112.
All bar one of the ‘borderline’ children we selected are now securely achieving at age appropriate levels. The children who started out at a much lower level have also made progress.
The programme isn’t a miracle cure – they are still some distance away from being at the level expected for their age but for the first time they scored enough marks to actually get a standardised score on the correct assessment for their age range. (Previously we have had to use an assessment from a much younger age group in order to generate a score).
For example, one child scored 76 on the year 3 assessment at the end of year 4 but now scored 72 on the year 5 assessment. Of course the information on how they did at an objective level is much more useful in terms of planning further teaching than this data, but it is still good to know that the progress they are making is also reflected in other assessments.
What I hadn’t expected was how much the children loved doing the programme. I interviewed each child separately and almost all of them were gushing in their praise. They love it!
They each seemed to have a really good relationship with their tutor (so much for my fears about it being a dodgy call centre experience) and said it was really helping then get better at maths – they could feel the difference and felt more confident.
I asked how it compared to working with an in-the-flesh teacher 1:1. They said both were good and couldn’t choose between them. The difference for me as a headteacher though is that the Third Space Learning intervention is so much cheaper which means we can target many more children than we could otherwise afford. They really want to carry on next term and say I should buy more spaces so everybody in their class has the same opportunity to take part.
Disclosure: As mentioned above 13 pupils in my school received 12 weeks of weekly 1-to-1 tuition from Third Space Learning as payment for blog posts and my participation in filming their primary Maths CPD.
Special Offer on Third Space Learning’s 1-to-1 Maths SATs Booster
I’ve already booked pupils in for the 1-to-1 tuition next term. If you want to find out how the programme could work in your school, book a demo here or call their school team on 020 3771 0095.
Third Space have told me they will be happy to offer any school mentioning this blog-post a discount on their KS2 Maths SATs Booster which starts in January.