Today I attended a Local Authority Secondary Maths event. It was a great pleasure to meet so many enthusiastic and knowledgeable colleagues – the wealth of experience in the room was impressive and, as ever, I learned a lot from talking with dedicated practitioners over lunch and at the end of the day.
One of the items on the agenda was an update on Maths Hubs. Two Hub leaders attended and spoke about the work that they intend to carry out.
Strategic leadership of mathematics education across England is a complex challenge. There have been many models over the years, with recent incarnations including the National Strategies. This was a large-scale and incredibly expensive project, working largely through directly employed consultants and additionally commissioned provision from Local Authorities.
In 2004, the Smith Report highlighted the need for a national centre to have an overview of professional development, which led soon after to the birth of NCETM. I spent many years helping to run NCETM and have a lot of fondness for the project. We co-existed with the National Strategies and our byline was to be an honest broker of professional development, ensuring that teachers had access to the provision that existed across the country.
It was the honeymoon years for NCETM. The Strategies was the government's conduit to teachers – it was the vehicle by which an individual Secretary of State or Schools Minister could tinker with the system at their whim, based on their personal ideology. This allowed NCETM to stay somewhat more honest, more focused on evidence, more interested with efficacy than enforcing government madness. NCETM annual budget was approximately the size of a regular secondary school, miniscule in comparison to the Capita contract that was the National Strategies (many hundreds of millions). This again allowed us to be something quite different.
2008 did, of course, destroy public-private contracts. The economic crash meant it was abundantly clear to the large providers that the UK was closed for business. We all looked overseas, to the Middle East and to other emerging markets. The Strategies could not survive, that much was obvious.
But the government cannot be without a conduit to schools. No government can stand in front of an electorate and admit that it has no way of telling maths teachers what to do. How could a Secretary of State impose an ideology if there was no mechanism for spreading the gospel (side note: in this case it wasn't a Secretary of State – teachers love to think Gove was the bad guy, but how wrong they are – instead it was a Schools Minister with an ideology to push).
We were able to show good reach into schools and started the work of positioning NCETM to be the conduit that it is now.
2010 arrived, with the current NCETM contract nearing an end, and a new Schools Minister, with very clear ideas about what mathematics education should be, started to test his power: get them to do bloody bus-stop long division like I did when I was a child.
The honeymoon was over.
No longer involved with NCETM, I watched as people I respect and hold in the highest regard peddled the new message. Really bright people, people who know a lot about learning mathematics, sent out across the country to tell teachers how to divide and multiply. It was and is thoroughly embarrassing.
Nowadays the NCETM contract has morphed into one largely focused on a new spin-ridden project, the Maths Hubs.
We experimented several times with regional leadership during my time at NCETM. Indeed it was the original model, but one which was overpowered by the notion of a national virtual centre. We had Regional Coordinators, then Ambassadors and a network of ASTs.
Moreover, we worked closely with Local Authorities and the mathematics advisors and consultants therein.
The recent implementation of 32 (now 34) hubs across the country is pretty lacking in strategic or operational intellect from the DfE. The structure is deeply flawed and almost doomed to fail by design.
Before Liz Truss was bizarrely sacked and shifted over to DEFRA to talk about cheese (and can't you just see a little bit of her soul dying each time she does), she pushed the Maths Hubs agenda at the Department. Liz is incredibly passionate about maths education and was always an advocate for improvement. Trouble is, of course, the approach she believed in lacked any real insight into effective classroom practice or the super-structures that exist around education and how these are important interplay that cannot be ignored.
So, the Maths Hubs project was pushed as the saviour. But it will not be.
That is not to say that the people running the Maths Hubs don't do a good job. They do. They are great teachers, with excellent track records. They are enthusiasts who saw an opportunity to contribute beyond their school. And they should be praised for doing so.
The model of Maths Hubs is simply broken. It is lip service to a very serious and complex issue. The idea that 34 schools, with one teacher given one day per week and a tiny pot of cash can make any systemic improvement is simply nonsense.
Local Authorities had their faults, we all know that, but the model was 152 school support services, serving local communities that they knew well, where each of the advisors had a wealth of experience, knowledge and, crucially, had time to read, learn, reflect and think. That model is without a doubt a better model. Not a perfect model, but a better one.
It is interesting to meet many mathematics education colleagues who, looking dreamily to the sky and speaking fondly, will tell you that they only really learned about mathematics teaching and learning after they had stopped teaching. This is not a trivial point. Teaching children is a skill. Getting children to learn mathematics, a higher one. And most great teachers do this well. But beyond that, getting other teachers to grow and to be able to get children to learn, that's a very different skill. It takes deep thought and time to learn from evidence. The way in which human beings acquire knowledge and skills is also a complex issue and so it makes sense that understanding of this often comes only once a professional is able to engage with evidence and give it some serious thinking time. This is of course pretty difficult for many teachers, particularly those in the first five years of their careers. This is why I often argue for a system of sabbatical, but I digress.
Local Authority advisors had the space to breathe.
Extremely busy teachers, no matter how individually skilled with their own classes in their own schools, with just one day per week, simply do not have time to provide any meaningful support for very large numbers of schools. 34 Maths Hubs across 22,000 schools. Think about it.
I sat in the LA meeting listening to the presentations from the Maths Hubs leads. I was so full of hope, so much wanting them to come across well, so desperate to be proved wrong. But alas alas.
The first chap, clearly enthusiastic and proud of being awarded the Maths Hub status, came across as superficial and lacking in thought and empathy. His comments were descriptive and prescriptive, much more about what he will do to schools rather than what they might do together.
The entire NCETM project is no longer about being an honest broker (indeed NCETM are now a commercial competitor to CPD providers across the country), but is now instead just about being the conduit for the schools minister's personal beliefs. This is a very significant change to the previous contracts for NCETM. During my time, we did all that we could to promote collaborative practice and never assumed to tell teachers what to do. Now, NCETM is part of the machinery of such extreme centralisation and prescription that it is instructing teachers how to divide two numbers.
Our Maths Hub colleague immediately went into salesman mode. Selling a doctrine straight from Nick Gibb's office. We were straight in with Shanghai, that oh so favourite distraction story of the moment. We were told about Shanghai teaching models (as though such a thing exists) and, particularly those of us of a certain age, sat with our heads in our hands as our salesman tried to tell us of 'new' approaches to teaching mathematics that most of us having been implementing for many, many years.
Buzzwords aplenty. We were told about 'bar modeling', 'mastery' and 'working memory'. Now, I have no issue with any of these things – great teachers have been au fait with all of this for a very long time and we didn't need a fleeting education minister to tell us to do what works. I take issue with the pretense that the DfE has suddenly discovered something. I also take issue with the weak understanding of these important aspects of pedagogy that seems to exist amongst many of the people so fervently pushing them. It is as though the work of Stern in 1949, or Skemp, or Bloom, or Cockroft or a whole host of others has been wiped from the collective memory. If teachers want to know about effective mathematics specific pedagogy, they would be far better served by turning to the ATM or MA rather than the flaccid, short term nonsense that appears to be the mantra of some of the Maths Hubs.
I worry that some of the people reading the script on behalf of the schools minister have not had time to think, reflect, test, question or simply learn about what they are being told to say.
When asked what is meant by 'mastery', people I meet across the country give a different response. The word means something in regular English parlance, so people interpret the word and make it what they want. Much in the same way that some not very bright head teachers or inspectors pick up a one-page summary of Hattie or Sutton Trust effect sizes and then just shoehorn the titles into their own personal beliefs, which they then feel justified to spout and enforce. I cannot count the number of times a member of a school SMT has talked to me about how they now model their teaching and learning policy on the top ten Hattie effects, but then go on to tell me the most bastardised definitions of the shorthand titles imaginable – for goodness sake, is it too much to ask people actually read the research first?
Definitions of mastery vary wildly (even between just a couple of Maths Hubs presenters). Most will talk of the commercial product that is ARK's Mathematics Mastery. All jolly good, and a nice product. People will have heard the wonderful Bruno Reddy talking at events, and they think, sounds great, I'll have some of that. Others might refer to Skemp, others to Bloom. Some will tell you that mastery refers to concepts, others will tell you that it is about children all progressing together. While others will evangelise, as though it is some recent revelation, about the self-evident fact that, in mathematics, it is really rather important that foundations are in place before moving on (what I often refer to as the Jenga). Some will attack 'spiral' curriculum models with such vitriol that one would think they had been personally abused by such a model, yet when pushed, reveal that they don't really understand the definition of 'spiral' either.
Equally, some will have heard the ever engaging Kris Boulton et al discuss working memory and make those words mean whatever they want. Shortcutting evidence by simply imagining what the phrases might mean and aligning it with personal ideology.
And it is completely understandable that these situations arise, after-all, our Maths Hubs colleagues have full timetables, classes to teach, paperwork to do. What time do they have to challenge?
I listened to our colleagues talk about the national priority projects that the DfE has charged them and NCETM with and I couldn't help comparing this in my mind to the days of the Strategies. A similar situation in many respects existed then; the DfEE, DfES, DCSF or whatever New Labour commissioned PR-company driven branding they were adopting at the time, would hand down diktat from the Secretary of State of the day (goodness, they really were fleeting during Labour's administration – with Blunkett being the only half decent one). CfBT and later Capita, would take the messages they were asked to spread and pass these down to Local Authority advisors. So, all very much the same, right? But here is the point where the difference kicks in. LA advisors would listen politely to the Gospel then head back to their authorities, filter out the bullshit, add in a dash of tried and tested practice and engage the schools in the regions in something more befitting the time of professionals.
But not our salesman. He appeared to be completely enamored with Mr Gibb's message and he sold it off the page, without any diversion or hesitation (but plenty of repetition). My heart was sinking.
[A question: would the Maths Hub presenter be able to pass the NCETM CPD Standard? I have my doubts.]
Following the whirlwind sales pitch, a second Maths Hub leader took the floor and some hope returned. He began by stating emphatically that he knew the Hubs can't achieve system wide improvement, but that he, as an individual, wanted to play his part, wanted to contribute. This chap, much older than the salesman, like many of us has seen initiative after initiative after initiative come and go.
There was much to admire about the second presenter – he was clearly more interested in mathematics education than in government fancy. He was clearly an excellent teacher, and I could imagine kids in his class being highly engaged and enthused to become mathematicians. In him, we saw a glimmer of what the best LA advisors used to do with the Strategies – take the money, but stay true to their values.
But only a glimmer.
Working in a school, being a really good teacher, caring about one's job and wanting to help others are all good traits and to be admired, but they do not necessarily ready one for leading a strategy well beyond one's own school. We were told, yet again, about the national priority projects (though he did a good job at skimming over these and giving us the impression that they were merely the things in the background that 'we have to do'), before going on to talk to the group about the local and regional projects that he would like to run. I was disappointed to see that government and NCETM have clearly not prepared the Maths Hubs leaders for coordinating regional projects. If they had, they would not be taking a scattergun approach of multiple, disconnected, seemingly random, projects. NCETM should be giving strong guidance to these good people – my old colleagues there have extensive experience in running regional projects and should therefore clearly understand the need for focus.
These regional projects will not amount to much at all. There is no capacity there for programme design, research, efficacy planning or monitoring. Worse still, we were told that there would also be 'bursary projects' where 'if you want five hundred quid to do something' you just need to ask and use it how you want. This flies against everything I tried to achieve at NCETM, where I had to break down a culture of just throwing some money out there to see what happens and we spent years building a proper teacher enquiry structure, criteria and QA framework. These bursary projects are frankly insulting and, as a taxpayer, I am deeply concerned about the use of public money in this way.
Our presenter ended his talk by informing the audience that they could claim £10,000 for implementing Core Maths next year. This was a perfect piece of design and timing, with every teacher in the room now forgetting the rest of what they had been told and dreamily thinking of ways to spend £10K.
At the end of the presentations, delegates were given the opportunity to ask questions. It is a sad indictment of how passive teachers have become that not a single person challenged anything or asked any probing questions.
The Maths Hubs people are good people and I sincerely wish them the very best of luck.
However, I am increasingly concerned of late that the profession seems utterly oblivious to the fact that we are sleepwalking into becoming unthinking drones. Rather than trusting the profession and those who know a great deal about teaching and learning in mathematics, the DfE, and particularly Nick Gibb, are determined to implement their own vision of mathematics education. Teachers seem beaten, seem tired or (so much worse) seem to capitulate because they think Nanny knows best.
And the result of this is that young teachers like our salesman are throwing the baby out with the bathwater (in fact, the entire bathroom is having a wrecking ball thrown through it). To hear this young teacher tell us that he has completely changed the Year 7 curriculum and approach to a mastery approach (whatever he thinks that is) is just heartbreaking. Playing God with children's lives. Children who have already been on a curriculum journey for six or seven years. And I worry that is it entirely because he is young - he can't see that no education reform has ever, or will ever, work. That there will be new ministers, new political administrations and, like everything else, the fashion will change. There is no long-term improvement. There is just whim. He can't see that in six months Nick Gibb will have a different job. He can't see that our current caretaker Secretary of State won't hold that post by the summer. Others will move in and they will bring their ideology to unpack and offload onto the profession. So what will he do then? What will happen to his Year 7 children? When the fashion and fads pivot yet again, those poor kids will face yet another hiatus in their learning. Rather than being on a carefully considered, well planned route through learning mathematics from beginning to end, they are continually thrown from one fancy to the next.
A new Secretary of State or Schools Minister (of any political persuasion) will want to make their mark, ensure their legacy, bag their place on the Board of their preferred education company. But they won't make any real difference. The Secretary of State for Education never does. Nobody will remember Nicky Morgan, no child's life will be improved. That is the sore truth of such transitory job positions. It is possible to count on one hand the education ministers who have made any real difference in the last 60 years.
Entire countries go in and out of fashion. At the moment, China is the darling, before that Singapore, before that Finland, before that Hungary, and on and on it goes.
Shanghai fits with Nick Gibb's beliefs, so it is convenient to use international league tables to highlight Shanghai as some kind of miracle. Truth is, it isn't. And it is not possible to simply pick the one or two things one likes about a system and then bolt them on to English education. Shanghai is one city in China, it has fundamental differences in so many important, interplaying influences on education. If Nick really wants the Shanghai success, it can only be through full scale adoption of the system. It cannot be ignored that China has one-party politics, or that culturally, education is one of the most highly regarded aspects of life, it cannot be ignored that primary teachers are all maths specialists (and nearly all maths grads), or that they only teach 2 or 3 lessons per day, it cannot be ignored that pupils invest huge amounts of time in independent study beyond the school day, it cannot be ignored that teachers are highly regarded in society or that teaching as a career is seen as something to be admired, it cannot be ignored that there is no inclusion and that the least able and most vulnerable children are missing from those oh-so adored international statistics.
There are those who will caricature Nick Gibb as someone who wants to take education back to the heydays of the 1950s. I'm not sure this is correct, but if he does want some semblance of those days to return, then again it can't be cherry picked. So many aspects were different, including many cultural ones again. But also discipline, teacher working conditions, no inclusion, etc. And that's not even to mention the fact that there was, of course, no 1950s heyday – not for the vast majority anyway. Daisy Christodoulou gives some entertaining commentary on this.
As a member of the conservative party, I share a lot of common ground with Nick Gibb. But I am old school: a Libertarian, more Gladstone than Cameron. I believe in trusting professionals to be professional. I believe that schools and their local communities know best.
However, I am committed to the view that education should be in the hands of politicians. It has to be democratic. But I do not believe, in any way whatsoever, that the current administration was given the mandate to impose this hideous Gibbsean system. I agreed entirely with Michael Gove that education should be demanding and rigorous, that everyone should have the opportunity to excel and that the poverty of expectation and aspiration had to end. But I also agreed entirely with Michael Gove when he talked about de-centralisation, about handing power back to head teachers, about giving communities control over their children's lives. I believe that was what the Conservative Party campaigned on and that was the mandate they were given by the electorate.
We are now heading so far away from that that I find it almost impossible to believe that the current DfE has any truly Tory input at all. Where we are now is nothing short of totalitarian: You must teach this, in this way, from this exact textbook. Stuff what parents want, stuff what teachers know.
By using the smokescreen that is a period of apparent austerity to remove the so-hated Town Hall Council influence in education through LAs, the Department is able to run schools from the centre. It is breeding a new type of teacher, the unthinking, unchallenging, compliant teacher. The Stepford Teacher.
The set textbook project has some merit in that it seeks to promote quality resource, resource that is well-researched and tested, resource that is based on evidence. These are admirable aims, but to think that this can only be realised in the form of The-Communist-State-Nanny-Knows-Best-Take-The-Blue-Pill-Set-Text is idiotic. It is not the fact that the resource exists in a paper book form that ensures its efficacy, it is the learning design and the delivery that matter. But there is much else at play here – a desire to control the masses, to enforce an ideology. The battleground will be bloody, with the DfE already showing its colours. The recent report from Tim Oates (someone I have a lot of respect for) will be used to bang the drum for the set textbook approach. Not only that, but it will be used to polarise, to create hatred and sneer for those who do not agree (an ever present tactic in those trying to control and radicalise). We have seen this already in the disgraceful attack on Rising Stars (an online publishing company). For an organization of the might of Cambridge and the DfE to be deriding the good work of a small, independent publisher is utterly shameful. Rising Stars, the brainchild or Andrea Carr, delivers a great service to many thousands of pupils and has done for many years now. Rising Stars has had a positive impact on millions of children's lives – is that something we can say of Mr Gibb or the current DfE? I think not. And Rising Stars will continue to do its good work long after every single person trying to push the set text nonsense has moved on to jobs that have nothing to do with education.
Furthermore, creating a national script for teachers will only accelerate the de-professionalism that has gripped the Stepford Teachers. It removes the need for teachers to think, for teachers to critically analyse what they are planning. It places teachers in the role of a glorified narrator.
Their job will simply be to deliver the diktat.
And yet there seems to be almost no fight against any of this. It is as though the entire profession has taken a large dose of Nytol. Why are teachers so willing to do as they are told by those who have little idea about what they are talking about? Worse still, why are those who fundamentally disagree with the government acting as its agents to spread the word?
England knows an enormous amount about effective education. In Nottingham, Plymouth, Cambridge, Warwick, IOE and the OU, we have some of the finest, internationally respected thinkers in the world on mathematics education.
This is why education is the UKs fifth largest export. Our system is admired and respected everywhere in the world apart from here at home, where instead we have ministers who appear to hate the hundreds of thousands of teachers who work hard day in, day out to help the children in our care.
But the Stepford Teachers seem utterly oblivious to the incredible knowledge that we collectively hold as a profession. Any day of the week, I will heed the advice of Malcolm Swan, John Mason, Celia Hoyles, Anne Watson, Derek Haylock and so many others long before I listen to a word that emerges from the superficial and deluded Gibb. What is also concerning is that many of the Stepford Teachers have never even heard of these people. And what is even more alarming is that so many of the most experienced mathematics educators in the country (many of whom in private will refer to Gibb as the most dangerous man in education) are so unwilling to put their head above the parapet, instead playing a part in peddling the crap in order to curry favour with ministers and civil servants.
Of course, there is no real need to worry about any of this in the long run, because the next fashion will be along soon. There is no long-term improvement, just continual disruption for teachers and children.
I think this is where private schools have such a great advantage – more so than privilege, money and family: they can be long-term. There is a stark difference to the attitude of a new head teacher in a state school and one in a private school. The private school head knows that he is not the important part of his new appointment – it is the school itself. Its history, its traditions, its purpose. The new head is simply the next custodian and his job is to humbly take the reins and maintain the school, it is he who is privileged, not the other staff, pupils and parents. In state schools, because of ever changing policies and government diktat, a new head teacher is so often of the belief that their job is to change things, to create a new vision, to be the saviour. So everything changes; new policies and procedures, new uniform, new school name, new... all because it is the ego of the head teacher that is the dominant force rather than the history and purpose of the school.
So there are many aspects of education that actively reduce the possibility of long term improvement. But, there can be long-term improvement. It can be a feature of our schools system. If only teachers realised that they are the powerful ones, not ministers, that they will endure, that they will see off minister after minister after minister. If only teachers could see that if they stuck to their principles, if they engaged with evidence, if they ignored the fancy of successive ministers, then children would get a much better deal. If only more head teachers understood that their job is not to impose change, but is to preserve greatness. Then perhaps we as a profession could create stability and grow effective practices that give children the chance to experience an intelligent journey through learning from entry to exit.