Sum of many parts
The pressure is on to raise standards in numeracy and literacy, especially for National Challenge schools. Liz Lightfoot reports on the strategies leaders are deploying to strengthen the core subjects.
There cannot be a school or college leader who would challenge the importance of literacy and numeracy skills. However, since 2007, when the government changed the main performance indicator for secondary schools - the percentage of students achieving five A*-C GCSEs - to include maths and English, raising achievement in these subjects has gained a particular urgency.
This is especially true in some National Challenge schools, which might have been comfortably over the 30 per cent benchmark of students with five good GCSEs in all subjects, but fell below when maths and English were included.
Schools that have raised their game in these core subjects attribute their success to a variety of strategies, whole school and cross-curricular, as well as measures specific to either subject.
At Aston Manor School in a deprived part of Birmingham, 41 per cent of pupils gained five good GCSE grades last year including maths and English, despite the fact that two in five children are Bangladeshi and many do not speak English at home. Bernadette Jones, assistant head, says the emphasis on literacy across the curriculum has brought about real improvement over the last two years.
"We have a task group with representatives right the way across the curriculum which meets every half-term to look at aspects of literacy we need to focus on. We identified weakness in writing in terms of structure and syntax as things we needed to develop," she says.
The literacy coordinator has worked across the curriculum in different departments looking at the use of language and team teaching with the subject specialists. In design and technology she helped pupils to develop written evaluations of their projects and in maths she is looking at the use of English in exam questions.
"There is a phenomenal amount of vocabulary and technical language in the maths exams which pupils can find difficult," says Bernadette.
A series of laminated writing mats are being developed for different subjects containing technical words and key features of grammar and syntax that pupils can use to develop their writing. Progress is checked by a series of standards portfolios - samples of a child's work across the different departments to check for consistency in writing across subjects.
The Hollins Technology College in Accrington achieved 52 per cent five A*-C grades including English and maths against a predicted 32 per cent in 2007. Deputy Head Stephanie Holden says that improvement in maths and English is primarily down to a whole-school approach to driving up standards.
"Over the past six years we have seen improvement across all subjects," she says. "We have a well-balanced mix of experienced teachers who have been in the school for a long time and staff new to teaching. There is a focus in all departments on succeeding and achieving."
Fresh talent is an important part of the mix but the heads of both the English and maths departments are seasoned teachers who came to leadership fairly late in their careers and make "excellent role models with very high standards that are passed on throughout the departments," she adds.
According to Ofsted, achievement in maths has been consistently outstanding but Anne Cross, the school's head of maths, says there is no special secret of success: "It's just good teaching, positive staff and teachers who want to be with their classes."
According to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, the most improved school last year was Matthew Arnold in Staines, Middlesex which raised its tally of five or more good GCSEs including maths and English from 18 per cent in 2004 to 51 per cent in 2007.
Jackie Pearson, the headteacher, knew she faced a challenge when she arrived in 2001. "The school was known for good standards in sports and the arts and we have maintained these, but when we consulted the parents, they wanted stronger academic standards," she says.
Improving the maths department was particularly difficult because she took over at the height of the crisis over the shortage of specialist maths teachers, which was especially severe in London and the south east.
Jackie started by looking closely at the student teachers. Among them was Louisa Moreton who was on her second PGCE teaching practice in 2002. "We recognised her passion for the students and for her subject and made every effort to retain her," Jackie says.
Seven years later Louisa is head of the school's maths department and, in turn, doing what she can to help as many student teachers as she can manage. Normally she has two at a time but there have been three within the department. "These student teachers bring us fresh ideas and resources as well as supporting revision sessions for year 11s," Louisa says.
Staff and student teachers have already provided 600 hours of revision for the 170 year 11 pupils so far this year, putting on sessions four nights a week. Each session has four or five staff to keep down the pupil-teacher ratio.
"Staff in the department are outstanding at supporting the revision sessions and have never once complained about the extra hours they put in," she says.
The take-up was low at first so the school decided to try small cash incentives. Pupils' names were put into a hat each time they attended a session and every six weeks there was a draw for up to eight £5 notes. Attendance is now secure, but the scheme has been retained because pupils enjoy the competition.
It is still difficult to recruit specialist maths teachers, however, and this year staff in other subjects volunteered to undertake an initial eight hours of training. Now, with on-going support, they are responsible for 36 hours of maths teaching a week between them.
"They are an absolute asset to us because they wanted to teach maths as part of their timetable and have often spent longer planning for their maths than their specialist subject," Louisa adds.
Other factors which have helped raise the number of good grades have been booster sessions for groups of five to ten students for seven weeks out of school time and weekly exam questions for Key Stage 4 students on a mixture of topics rather than those they are tackling that week.
But despite this, Jackie is keen to emphasise that the achievements in literacy and numeracy are as much the product of whole school improvement as single strategies.
She says: "These days there is a focus on English and maths but raising achievement is about how you run the whole school - the vision you have and the development of a team which works together right across the school. There's no magic wand; it's hard work and attention to detail."
When maths teachers are in such short supply it's hard to think of losing them, even if they are not as efficient as they might be. But some of the schools making the most dramatic progress have had to invoke capability procedures on teachers, even long-standing heads of departments.
Joan McVittie, a head in north London, says working through the procedures with the head of maths after she took over a school was extremely difficult and she then had to do the same with another member of the department.
Unable to recruit enough new maths teachers of sufficient calibre, she used enthusiastic students on Teach First, the training scheme for high-flying graduates. London Challenge, the school improvement programme for the capital, has helped coach the younger and more inexperienced maths team and results have improved across the board, she says.
The maths department is bigger than it used to be to allow smaller group teaching. "I have just been on the maths corridor with half the year 11s and there was a class of six, a class of about 12, some bursting at the seams with about 30 and two more normal sized classes of 25," she says.
Schools are doing what they can but if the government is going to meet its latest target of 53 per cent of pupils gaining five or more A*-C GCSEs including maths and English by 2011 (from 47.2 per cent in 2008), more effort will be needed to recruit sufficient well-qualified and enthusiastic maths teachers in particular, say the heads and deputies.
In the current economic climate, when maths graduates are no longer so sought after by banks and City firms, the time could be right.
Liz Lightfoot is a freelance education writer.
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