What does the future hold for primary mathematics following the Williams review? Caroline Slissolf looks at the review of framework in detail and asks how recommendations on primary maths training and specialism will translate into reality

Until recently I was a consultant for the National Strategy. I took on the role when it was first introduced nationally to schools in 1999. Since that time I have seen huge changes in the teaching of mathematics. Much of the teaching I have observed has improved over the years, and in many cases the engagement of the children (and their enjoyment of the subject) was evident. Teachers now know how children learn mathematics and they know the progression in their understanding, which is so very important. But there has been a downside. Most teachers have become objective-bound, which in many cases has stopped creativity and the development of critical using and applying skills. Also, cross-curricular links and real-life contexts are seldom seen.

The renewed Framework
It was my hope that the renewed Primary Framework would address this. It has in the case of more confident and creative teachers, but in many there seems to have been little change. However, we know that the original numeracy strategy took a few years to be embedded into schools, so there is no reason not to expect the renewed Primary Framework to take a similar amount of time to be fully embraced. Teachers are often rushed into change, and it is important to accept that a good understanding and knowledge of the renewed Framework is needed in order for it to work – so only time will tell how useful (or not) the renewed Primary Framework proves to be.

The Williams review
The renewed Primary Framework is vast, and before teachers can blink an additional review has now been published. In July 2007, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families asked Sir Peter Williams to undertake a review into the teaching of mathematics in primary schools and early-years settings. The final report, published a few months ago, provides recommendations for improving the quality of mathematics teaching in early years settings and primary schools. So what does the Williams review actually mean?

Professional development
I applaud the emphasis throughout the review on finding time and opportunity for teachers’ professional development. Continuing professional development (CPD) was very popular in the early stages of the implementation of the 1999 framework and was of great benefit to teachers. Then, money was ringfenced for training. Now it is not, and this has seen a huge reduction in numbers of teachers attending courses. This is a great shame, because effective implementation of any new framework or initiative depends heavily on CPD. 

The second recommendation of the Williams review states: ‘renewed emphasis on CPD is required by practitioners, headteachers, local authorities and Government, focused on both in-school activities and third-party market provision, with the clear delegation to school level of the responsibility for CPD undertaken’. However, again, if funding is not ringfenced, will schools commit to this? I hope so.

Mental mathematics
One of my great concerns with the renewed Primary Framework is that the reduced objectives leave out many of the very important areas that need teaching. For example, in Year 3 teachers are given the objective: ‘Add or subtract mentally combinations of one- and two-digit numbers’. In the 1999 framework great strategies were given to help teachers show children how to do this effectively. These are on the renewed Primary Framework’s website, but are very difficult to find, and teachers will not have hours to spend searching them out.

So it is encouraging to read that Sir Peter Williams believes we should have a renewed and sharper focus on the use of mental mathematics. My hope is that future CPD models will reinstate the basic strategies offered in the 1999 framework, as they are the foundations for efficient mental calculation techniques.

Making maths fun
Of course there are other areas that need addressing: for example, using and applying, problem-solving, creativity and cross-curricular links, and I would hope that these will be included in CPD. It is good to see that the review’s recommendations also include a greater focus on making maths fun by using games and real-life situations to apply mathematical concepts so maybe they will. 

Mathematics specialists
I wonder at whom the CPD will be directed. In an ideal world, all teachers should receive it, but realistically I can’t see that happening. Should it be aimed at teachers in their second or third years of teaching, or those that have been in the classroom a long time and need a refresher in teaching mathematics? Should it be for returning teachers, overseas teachers or NQTs? The implications need to be considered, not least the fact that CPD requirements will be different for all these groups of teachers.

As a lecturer of primary PGCE students, I am concerned at the small amount of time devoted specifically to mathematics. On average each student receives between 10 and 15 days on the subject throughout their PGCE year, so they only scrape the surface of what they need to know. Many admit to not enjoying maths and not being successful at it when they were at school. The minimum requirement is a grade C at GCSE level and most students have not studied the subject since then. Mathematics is now so different to how they experienced it at school, and the allotted hours are not sufficient. The Williams review discusses these issues and also that of the appropriateness of the material taught to student teachers. However, the review suggests that, in the short term, it is unrealistic to change the content of PGCE courses, recommending that the route for raising students’ mathematical understanding should be CPD as a teacher.

One of the key recommendations in the review is that within 10 years there should be at least one mathematics specialist or champion in every primary school, or a shared specialist in smaller schools. This does not need to be a teacher with a high-level qualification in mathematics; it is more about depth of understanding of the mathematics that is taught, effective ways of teaching and enthusiasm for the subject.

The review revealed that most teachers lacked the confidence in their own numerical skills to teach children properly. So, the specialist’s role would be to act as a mentor and coach to their colleagues, as well as being an outstanding classroom teacher. They would reinvent their school’s approach to teaching the subject, help eradicate the ‘can’t-do’ attitude to maths and ensure that every child leaves primary school without a fear of maths, having mastered the basics by the age of seven.

This is a tremendous idea, which will mean training 13,000 teachers over three years at a cost of about £24m. 300 teachers are already considered to have sufficient knowledge to qualify as specialists and could be fast-tracked through new training. The other 10,000 would need to start specialist training from scratch. Specialists will be offered cash incentives ranging from £5,500 to £8,000 to retrain, working towards a Master’s degree.

It is estimated that the Government will spend a total of £187m over 10 years to ensure this happens and provide the extra money necessary for the specialists’ additional pay responsibility points. The review acknowledges the significant cost implications, but believes the financial rewards of creating a skilled workforce for the future will compensate for the extra expense. One question I find myself asking is: where will this money be found in the current state of recession, particularly when there are so many other initiatives in primary education that need funding?

Other questions also need to be considered. What happens if the mathematics specialist moves to another school and that school already has a specialist? Will one of the specialists lose their status? Does the old school have to train or recruit another specialist? Will a school expect the specialist to teach only maths, to different classes and year groups? As a maths coordinator in one small school I taught in, that was my role, and that would have defeated the whole purpose of the recommendation. Will these specialists replace coordinators/subject leaders and if not will conflicts arise?

Will there be a standard or qualification level that will need to be reached in order to take the role? Will the training be CPD or a one-off’ course? The report suggests a number of complementary pathways provided by higher education institutions, National Strategies and local authorities; can this be effective and cohesive if undertaken by separate bodies? There have been suggestions of 15 days’ training spread over three years. What about the difficulties with retention – some of these key teachers may not be at a school for that period of time?

All-in-all, Sir Peter Williams’ review into primary mathematics does offer some great recommendations, and the idea of having specialist maths teachers is a good one. A renewed emphasis on using and applying, problem-solving, creativity, cross-curricular links and key mental mathematics skills is certainly needed. The teaching and learning of mathematics throws up unique problems, and the more support primary school teachers can access to effectively deliver the subject the better.

Towards the end of the report there is a very interesting paragraph:

“… widespread concern has been expressed about the recent revision of the Primary Frameworks in literacy and mathematics, both with regard to the increased range of materials placed on the website and the complexity of the Interactive Planning Tool (IPT). This calls into question the effectiveness of the revised frameworks when compared with the preceding versions, and suggests that they should be reconsidered to achieve a more suitable, user-friendly form. In light of the fact that they are for the use of very busy practitioners, it is essential to ensure, for example, the easy navigability of the complex CD and web-enabled tools. IT-based approaches often run the risk of introducing a kaleidoscope of new information, which can excite and motivate skilled practitioners, but is daunting for those who are far less skilled with such approaches.”

Many people have expressed this concern over the past 12 months. The Framework’s website-based delivery makes life very difficult for teachers, and any changes to make access to key information more user-friendly would certainly be welcomed.