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Mathematics: a fail-safe for society

Published on 17/07/19

In recently joining Inspiration Trust, I have taken stock of where I have come from, who I should thank, and where I intend to develop. I have been a teacher for eighteen years. I began as a newly qualified mathematics teacher and eventually enjoyed three years as an advanced skills teacher (a teacher who supports other teachers in the region). By 2010, I realised I wanted to make the move into senior leadership and this is where I have spent at least half of my career.

I am fortunate to be able to work with schools, teachers, and pupils across the region with Inspiration Trust to develop pupils’ knowledge and confidence in using their mathematical expertise. This responsibility to lead and manage the vision for the mathematics curriculum gives me time to develop other ideas in mathematics education that I’ve wanted to explore, particularly providing access to mathematics for all.

Every child can achieve proficiency in the building blocks of our 21st-century society. Together with over 100 teachers from the Inspiration Trust and in partnership with other trusts, we have developed a coherent curriculum that will guarantee that all pupils know the fundamental ideas in mathematics which will set them up to achieve their personal goals and career aspirations. Small decisions create big changes in pupils’ potential. For example, our intent for all 11-year-olds to know their multiples of 2 to 14 increases pupils sense of number, including factors, multiples, square numbers, cubes, and prime numbers. Knowing the fundamentals of our number system with automaticity is critical for our pupils potential to later access and grow their skills in a broader secondary curriculum. Similarly, in key stage 3, the knowledge of how to write and communicate using a variation of fractions, decimals, percentages and ratio to calculate with speed and accuracy is the single most important feature of our KS3 curriculum. We know how fluency in calculation bears its fruit in our young peoples’ performance at GCSE. We believe all pupils can experience and know these concepts- and we build a curriculum around this belief.

Mathematics is universal in its application and interest: it’s there to be captured. While helping others improve their knowledge and skill is certainly what I understood to be part of my role; I now realise was that it much more. Supporting staff to teach the freedoms pupils have in their thinking and innovation when they have the knowledge about the conditions of proof, or how to rearrange a calculation- or even transform numbers into something that makes sense. If people and culture are said to be the glue of our society; mathematics is the fail-safe of its progress. Without it, significant scientific and technological advancement rarely happens.

Teaching is more than telling pupils what to think and do. This would be like a doctor immediately prescribing a treatment plan upon meeting a new patient; it’s critical for the doctor to communicate their choices clearly and establish a trust to ultimately help their patient's long term health. In the same way, our pupils have a right to know the place that a strong mathematical knowledge has for the culture and community they choose to live in.

Capturing interest comes with concise instruction. One fear I had in joining the trust was that I might be expecting others to deliver a curriculum that I might not be able to do myself. So, it was very important for me to get into classrooms as often as possible. I wanted to teach and observe others teaching so that I could understand how the intended curriculum translated into the classroom. This experience continues to help me stay grounded and illustrates the gaps between what I expect would happen in teachers’ practice and what actually does. In reality, it’s impossible to know exactly what teachers actually experience as actual demands of their time and expertise is always great. For example, while I taught many lessons, I have been impressed by the planning for concise and clean instruction, which was never a significant priority of mine before working with Inspiration Trust. Teachers are supported by a culture of innovation and research in the trust. For example, we incorporate the thinking and systems behind explicit instructional methods of Kirschner and Sweller. Our classroom curriculum maps help teachers’ pedagogy and thinking in using such approaches. Teachers across the trust are rightly focused on refining their instructional methods. I always try to keep our teachers own priorities in mind as I reflect on my experiences.

I offer you contrast to my thinking in this blog post as I’m always looking to challenge my own beliefs. A recent article by Hilary Moriarty titled 'Can everyone 'do' maths?' offers an opposing view to our assertion that every pupil can grasp the fundamentals of mathematics. We still believe that a knowledge-rich mathematics curriculum, taught thoroughly, can and should allow us to be ambitious for all pupils. We intend to prove Moriarty wrong and we look forward to seeing all our pupils reach security with the fundamentals of a mathematical education, which is an entitlement for all.

  • Sean Powell is director of maths at the Inspiration Trust