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Level 6 Maths at KS2. What’s the problem?

Recently I’ve picked up on a few blogs and twitter comments from primary Heads and teachers suggesting that that the introduction of Level 6 papers has placed them under unacceptable pressure. One person suggested it was “another way to feel like a failure”. Another was calling for it to be scrapped so that “children could enjoy learning without the constant pressure of testing”.

I am concerned about this kind of response – although I am assuming that it’s a minority view in the primary sector – because it comes across as if some primary teachers don’t think we should be teaching children to that standard. It feels like a massive own goal in the fight for a profession-led system capable of raising standards without external pressure.

There are some arguments that are legitimate. For example, setting performance targets for L6 is hugely problematic. In small cohorts, the variation year to year will be significant and there will be large fluctuations in the numbers attaining L6. The pressure from accountability processes certainly has an unhealthy distorting impact on school behaviours and we need to challenge that. BUT, let’s not confuse that issue with the idea that some children in Y6 can and should be taught to this level as a matter of course.

When I went to work at the British International School in Jakarta, my children also attended the school. One of the things that was striking was that the expectations of the maths standards for the most able students were significantly higher than we’d been used to in the UK. At that point there were Level 3-5 papers at KS2 but no level 6. At KS3 there were Level 4-6 and Level 5-7 papers too. As the school followed the English curriculum, we used the SATS papers as a reference point. It was a Pre-School to IB through-school with Primary and Secondary divisions that worked closely together. Interestingly the secondary Maths department often taught the higher ability groups in Year 6. Why? Because they were pitched high and the teachers were generally more used to working at this level. In fact the top set in Year 6 took the KS3 SATS papers and many students scored Level 7. We’d never seen this before. Importantly, many of the students were regular British kids in families posted to Jakarta who, back home, would have been limited to the Level 5 papers.

For that reason alone, I was delighted when Level 6 papers were introduced. To me that was a gaping hole in our system. Last year my son took the Level 6 Maths papers and got a Level 6b. That suggests to me that Level 6 was the appropriate level for him to be working at – within the limits of the meaning of levels, of course. In preparation for the tests he was taken out of his normal class for an extra lesson once a week from January to May along with a few others. His Y6 teacher was an excellent, confident maths teacher but still this additional support was introduced. It seemed to be a pragmatic measure resulting from the need to teach additional content. However, there was no question that my son could access the material. More than that, he lapped it up; for the first time he actually found maths challenging and, consequently, exciting. I literally mean, for the first time since joining the school in Y2. Up to then, maths had been something he did without thinking too much and didn’t rate too highly. He got full marks on nearly every test and coasted along compliantly.

Now my son might be relatively clever but he’s no freak. He’s just a regular boy who thrives on a bit of challenge. Why did if feel that this new level of challenge was such a shock to the system for the school and others like it? Let’s look at the material:

Screen shot 2014-05-06 at 22.22.22

In both of these questions the number work is easy. It’s just a question of posing problems in a new way and of teaching the concept of ratio as a sort of simplified fraction.

Here’s another couple:

Screen shot 2014-05-06 at 22.21.43

And another:

Screen shot 2014-05-06 at 21.43.15

In question four, it’s simply the idea that x is a way of saying ‘a missing number’. It’s easy to divide 90 by 3 and to know that a rectangular area would give x times 6 = 30.

Why is this material so difficult? It seems to me that, with good question selection, problems of this kind could be routine extensions of basic number work. And yet, I know KS2 teachers who are not confident with the material and this will naturally influence their view of the whole process of preparing students for the tests.

It strikes me that, rather than kicking back against the ‘unacceptable pressure’ of L6, we should be embracing it whole-heartedly and discussing the best way to ensure we’re teaching to this level systematically. Clearly, the generalist model of primary teaching has limits. It’s tough to be an expert practitioner is all areas of the curriculum. A teacher who feels totally at ease with L6
English and could teach effectively with Y2 and Y6, might not also be so comfortable with L6 maths. However, if a teacher is not super confident teaching L6 maths, they shouldn’t be doing it – surely?! But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be taught.

In other systems maths is taught as a specialist subject in primary schools and I’d suggest that we may need to move towards that model here. There are lots of ways of doing that and I know that lots of schools already develop specialist classes in the latter part of KS2. The question is not whether to teach L6 maths; it is how. How to deploy staff so that there is no limit imposed on students’ outcomes due to staff confidence with the material or the challenge of mixed ability teaching.

Of course, then there is the challenge that students arriving with L6 in Y7 might reasonably expect to move forwards from where they left off. How annoying to have a teacher who assumes L5 is the maximum starting point for every Y7 pupil. We did nth term of a sequence LAST YEAR! At least find out what I can do!

In the Headteachers’ Roundtable manifesto launched today we’ve floated the idea of stimulating innovation around structures that support and embed progression from KS2 to KS3 using a system of grants. We need to sort this out at both ends, exchanging expertise and challenging our transition partners regarding standards. Y5 to Y8 should be a period of rapid acceleration and continuing progression, not one of stuttering underachievement. And to anyone who thinks L6 in Y6 seems ridiculous as an aspiration for some students I’d say, please don’t ever use that as a measure of injustice and don’t complain about being tarnished with the poverty of ambition brush. You won’t be doing anyone any favours.

Discussion

17 thoughts on “Level 6 Maths at KS2. What’s the problem?

  1. I agree totally. We are in our first year of KS2 Sats and we have put children in for level 6 in all the papers. The children have been taken out once a week for Maths and Reading and have really enjoyed the challenge. At no point have they felt pressured and we have made it quite clear that if they don’t pass, it really doesn’t matter, it’s just an extra challenge. I have also enjoyed introducing questions from the level 6 papers to my whole class and it is sometimes surprising who can work out the correct approach to any given problem.
    I think the problem is that from 2016 onwards, all of the children are going to be expected to master aspects of this level. This could well put even more pupils off the subject at a time when we need more people to study maths, not less.

    Posted by JdV | May 7, 2014, 5:28 pm
  2. You’re son sounds like mine. Currently in year 6 he is being primed for the level 6 paper. Maths is a subject he loves and excels at. I was pleased and proud that he was doing dome really high standard work. My concerns started when it became clear that he was a targeted student for the schools statistics and comments from staff were putting more pressure on him. This weekend he was tearful because he thought he wasn’t good enough. Groves ten year old thus was ridiculous.mit seemed that the level 6work was about accountability not learning. It surely should be about enjoyable challenge not a test score

    Posted by Richard Clift | May 7, 2014, 5:42 pm
  3. Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

    Posted by Tim Taylor | May 7, 2014, 7:23 pm
  4. One of the difficulties with it as it stands is that children don’t get a 6c or whatever- it’s pass or fail, one point difference. That’s horrible

    Posted by Andrea Dunn | May 7, 2014, 8:33 pm
  5. Couldn’t agree more. If we are expected to ‘Set high expectations’ for children, how can we do that unless we teach them to their level, whether that be at Level 4, 5, 6 or higher!

    Posted by mroberts1990 | May 7, 2014, 8:41 pm
  6. At school I was bored through to Year 5 in Maths. In Year 6 I was taken out with another student and stretched and challenged – I loved it. I then got to secondary and sat in Year 7 and Year 8 lessons waiting for the rest of my class to get to where i was in year 6.

    The level 6 paper only works if secondary schools are ready, willing and able to build from that level rather than assuming it’s somehow ‘false’ and that ‘they are really just a level 5 who had some extra coaching’.

    Posted by steve w | May 7, 2014, 9:29 pm
  7. Tom, the L6 in maths seems to be an artificial construct. I mean, progress in maths (and any subject, I guess) is a continuum which depends on many factors: innate ability, educational history, teaching input, parental support, peer group challenge, societal expectations……in this case, what’s special or unique about attaining L6 in maths (even putting to one side the issue of levels and what they may or not mean)? In the examples you give (and some in the comments), the issue is one of teaching individual children at the level that they could respond to (rather than at a level they can easily cope with). It isn’t about L6 per se. So, the issue is really about appropriate challenge in the work. In maths, there is a problem. That problem appears to be that some children are ready for a level of challenge in year6 which is probably beyond that which a generalist year6 teacher can deliver. Why would that be?

    [ I wonder about the numbers of children you think are/could be ready for this level of challenge in year6…..your son is not, I would venture, a regular boy…some of your previous posts gave me an impression that he is very much in the top few percent of the population with respect to potential. It might be that there are many more children who are coasting in maths than is generally thought, or that with a higher level of challenge earlier on in their education, many more might be able to achieve at a higher level during year6…..but, you haven’t presented any evidence to support that here. How big a problem is this? (Because there is always an opportunity cost associated with structural changes). ]

    Posted by chemistrypoet | May 8, 2014, 7:21 pm
  8. For me the issue is like having a meccano set. When do you challenge young people to do more with the stuff they already have, and when do you give them more bits and/or more instructions? If you only ever believe you can do more if you have more bits, you never really explore the potential of what you already have. If you are never able to get more bits you are never able to do some of the things you imagine might be possible, and they remain dreams.

    Some of the greatest mathematicians ever – for example, Euclid: The Elements or Gauss: Disquisitiones Arithmeticae – show how very simple steps can be built into beautiful and extraordinary systems. The next steps in maths are of two types – using existing knowledge beyond what you imagine is possible, and going beyond what you already know to do something new, like non-Eucildean geometry or calculus.

    Sometimes you need a road map and progression – a new set of instructions. Sometimes you need to be left to explore the potential of what you already have. Both are important, I think, to progress in mathematics (as potentially opposed to scoring marks on tests). Your level six examples I see as exploring the potential of what is already known, rather than breaking new ground, and exploring ideas with new mathematical content.

    I did rather well mainly living with having to satisfy my mathematical curiosity by doing more than my peers with the common fund of stuff we all had. That was a big challenge.

    Posted by Mark bennet | May 8, 2014, 9:06 pm
  9. “Of course, then there is the challenge that students arriving with L6 in Y7 might reasonably expect to move forwards from where they left off. ”

    You forgot to insert the word “substantial” immediately before the word “challenge”.

    It is of course a completely different level 6 from the secondary level 6 which is a grave, serious affair that is as deep as the ocean and broader than the horizon. It’s a proper L6 at secondary, not some shoddy pseudo teach-to-test variety because they use an arcane assessment technique based on something primary won’t have heard of called curriculum ‘criteria’. Or primary simply cheated a 101 ways. Or all children’s brains fall out between now and September. Or [insert displacement here].

    Posted by Net Nym (@NetNym) | May 20, 2014, 5:21 pm
    • Referring to ‘primary’ in this way betrays an attitude that isn’t healthy at all. I know that L6 is broad. No one is suggesting Y6s have covered the entirety of L6 content – but they do arrive in Y7 working at that level and that should be acknowledged.

      Posted by headguruteacher | May 20, 2014, 7:22 pm
      • Yes. It’s a distillation of what I’ve seen posted in various guises dozens of times by secondary-side and it’s also reflected in the Sheffield Hallam report on L6. Steve W’s comment below is quite rare to my eyes and refreshing.

        At my not-freak Y6 daughter’s Middling State Primary the maths highers have had one weekly ‘enrichment’ lesson per week in place of the daily Numeracy slot since Y4. That lesson switched to L6 curriculum six months ago and I didn’t detect any significant pressure or stress over any of the SATs. She loved maths long before L6 and if they had traded more of those Numeracy slots for chasing NC levels at her quite voracious pace then I imagine she would be credibly well beyond L6 now and much the same cheerful child. However if they had kept her bouncing around at the top end of L5 for another year then I’m sure it would have done some significant damage i.e. the off-piste and L6 maths has acted to preserve the effervescent enthusiasm rather than destroy it.

        Posted by Net Nym (@NetNym) | May 21, 2014, 10:47 pm
  10. As well as being a secondary Maths teacher I am a Primary School Governor and therefore I get into quite a few Primary maths lessons on my visits. It’s really opened my eyes to see Primary school students comfortably doing work that is often seen in Year 7 curricula in secondary schools. This is not some sort of “year 6 crunch for the test” but in mainstream year 4 and year 5 lessons sometimes. I think many secondary maths teachers could do with spending a few days in Primary to see what really goes on on a day to day basis.

    Posted by steve w | May 20, 2014, 6:34 pm
  11. This is a late post I know. Maybe it will disappear unread into the ether. But for what it’s worth, the ks2 level 6 test is harder than the old ks3 sats. As there are only a couple of ks2 level 6 past papers, we routinely use the old ks3 ones with some year 6 and they routinely get level 7’s. Yet not all of them get their level 6 at ks2. Why – becase the questions are really deep – yes the number crunching isn’t hard but many questions (not the ones shown above) require pupils to really understand what maths they need to use – maybe having to use 3 different kids of maths within one problem. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – just that it is harder than the more routine…oh look its a fractions question you tend to get in the ks3 sats – and gcse for that matter. The pass mark for level 6 is way above half marks and the timescale is really short. I challenge secondary maths teachers to give their pupils the paper and see how they do.

    Posted by primaryprowess | October 5, 2014, 3:49 pm
    • Thanks for the comment. I don’t see this remotely as a primary vs secondary thing at all. The fact is that, across the system, plenty of kids can and should be reaching this level of maths as a matter of routine, not as some big excitement at the end of Year 6. It’s an issue we all share. I’m also not really interested in the levels issue – it’s more the content and the problem solving itself. Call it Level wxyz or whatever – we should have a pathway building through KS2 smoothly into KS3 that takes students along at this higher level automatically.

      Posted by Tom Sherrington | October 5, 2014, 8:17 pm
    • Level 6 actually require that children think for themselves. My son is in Year 3 but does maths with Year 4 and even now he coast through on auto-pilot as all questions are so transparent that he just fills in the answer without thinking.

      Level 6 questions require them to think so for bright kids should be introduced as soon as possible (from year 4?) to stop them switching off and becoming bored.

      Posted by jon | December 11, 2014, 1:46 pm

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