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:
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:
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.