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England’s schools ‘letting down brightest pupils’

England’s schools ‘letting down brightest pupils’

BBC |July 5, 2012


England is neglecting its brightest children, leaving them lagging far behind their peers overseas in top level maths scores, a report says.

The Sutton Trust study shows teenagers in England are half as likely as those in the average developed nation to reach higher levels in maths.

Brighter pupils are more likely to go to private or grammar schools rather than other state schools, it adds.

The government said it wanted to “restore academic rigour” to schools.

Researchers at the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University examined the proportions of pupils achieving the highest levels in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tests.

‘Deeply troubling’

The PISA tests (Programme for International Student Assessment) compare the performance of pupils in different countries in subjects such as reading and maths. The latest results date back to 2009.

The report found that just 1.7% of England’s 15-year-olds reached the highest level, Level 6, in maths, compared with an OECD average of 3.1%.

In Switzerland and Korea, 7.8% of pupils reached this level.

Overall, England ranked 26th out of 34 OECD countries for the proportion of pupils reaching the top level in maths, behind other nations like Slovenia (3.9%), the Slovak Republic (3.6%) France (3.3%) and the Czech Republic (3.2%), which were among those scoring around the OECD average.

The report adds that the situation looks worse for England when a wider global comparison is used.

Singapore, which is not part of the OECD table analysed, saw 15.6% of its students score the top level, while in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which were also not part of the OECD table, 10.8% and 26.6% respectively got the top level.

Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl said: “This is a deeply troubling picture for any us who care about our brightest pupils from non-privileged backgrounds.”

The study also suggests that comparing the maths results of 18-year-olds would be even more stark because 90% of English pupils drop the subject after GCSE.

Whereas in many other countries, maths is compulsory up to the age of 18.

The report argues that England is falling down international tables because of successive failures to help the most able pupils.

It calls for bright children to be identified at the end of primary school, with their achievements and progress tracked from then on.

‘Profound concerns’

It says there should also be tougher questions in exams to allow bright youngsters to stretch themselves and show their abilities.

Sir Peter said: “These are shocking findings that raise profound concerns about how well we support our most academically-able pupils, from non-privileged backgrounds.

“Excellence in maths is crucial in so many areas such as science, engineering, IT, economics and finance. These figures show that few bright non-privileged students reach their academic potential – which is unfair and a tragedy for them and the country as a whole.”

Report author Prof Alan Smithers said recent education policy for the brightest had been a mess.

“The government should signal to schools the importance of educating the brightest through how it holds the schools to account.

“At present the accountability measures are pitched at the weakest and middling performers,” he added.

Education Secretary Michael Gove added: “We already knew that under Labour we plummeted down the international league tables in maths.

“Now we see further evidence that they betrayed bright children from poor backgrounds and – worst of all – that their policies drove talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds away from the subjects that employers and universities value most.”

Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said: “Results for all pupils, including the brightest, improved under Labour.

“While there are always improvements that could be made, gifted and talented pupils were stretched through a National Academy, targeted scholarships and a new A* grade at A-level.

“While we want to see bright pupils stretched, this can’t be at the expense of leaving some behind. Michael Gove’s plans will create a two tier exam system, which will do nothing to help all pupils make the most of their potential.”

Nasuwt teaching union head Chris Keates said the tests used to draw the comparisons, and the way children prepare for them, differed between countries.

“Their conclusions raise more questions than they answer. They are not comparing like with like.

“The education systems are different. The pupils taking the tests are selected differently. Some countries do nothing but prepare for the tests for months. Some, like Shanghai may not enter a pupil sample generally reflective of the student population and use crammer sessions to prepare.”


Ofsted warns over early entry to maths GCSE

Ofsted warns over early entry to maths GCSE

BBC |May 21, 2012

By Hannah Richardson BBC News education reporter

Too many schools are entering pupils for maths GCSE early, says Ofsted in a major report that is critical of the way the subject is taught and tested.

This is preventing too many able pupils from fulfilling their potential, says chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw.

And many who get off to a poor start never catch up, he warns.

The report also says maths exams have become less demanding and that teaching standards vary unacceptably.

In the report: Mathematics Made to Measure, Sir Michael warns that “the extensive use of early GCSE entry puts too much emphasis on attaining a grade C”.

This is the benchmark grade used for schools’ headline league table measures.

Early entries

But the quest for this grade “is at the expense of adequate understanding and mastery of mathematics needed to succeed at A level and beyond,” he says.

The report claims there has been a vast increase in the number of pupils sitting GCSE early. With early entries rising from 5% in 2007 to 25% of all GCSEs in 2010.

And it warns the full extent of early entry to GCSE examinations is under-represented by these figures. Ofsted pledged to challenge such practices where it uncovered them.

Schools might use early entry to get some bright pupils’ GCSE exams out of the way, or to give greater focus to pupils they may feel are at risk of drifting out of education or being switched off.

The report adds that some schools are even entering pupils into GCSEs by two different exam boards “exploiting the flexibility of exam arrangements” in the hope that they might get a C in one of them.

The report says thousands of pupils who had reached Level 5 by the end of primary school – the standard expected of a 13-year-old – still did not go on to gain any better than a grade C at GCSE.

‘Never catch up’

Sir Michael adds: “Our failure to stretch some of our most able pupils threatens the future supply of well-qualified mathematicians, scientists and engineers.”

But he is also concerned about how well the least able are taught.

“Too many pupils who have a poor start or fall behind early in their mathematics education never catch up,” he says.

“The 10% who do not reach the expected standard at age seven doubles to 20% by age 11, and nearly doubles again by 16.

“Schools must focus on equipping all pupils, particularly those who fall behind or who find mathematics difficult, with the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the next stage of their mathematics education.”

Inspectors visited 160 primary and 160 secondary schools and observed more than 470 primary and 1,200 secondary mathematics lessons between January 2008 and July 2011.


They judged that more than half the schools were outstanding or good in maths.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said given the importance of maths for the economy and for the individual student, he would be asking schools to be even more ambitious when it comes to maths attainment at every stage of a child’s education.

“It is vital that we reverse the decline that has seen us fall from 8th to 27th in maths internationally. This is what drives our commitment to reform our curriculum and qualifications to world class standards.

“We are also attracting the brightest maths graduates into teaching with the highest ever bursaries.”

Last year, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education raised concerns about the number of schools using early and repeated entry to GCSE examinations.

“We are delighted that the Ofsted report has indicated that school inspections will challenge these practices,” it said in a statement.

But National Union of Teachers general secretary Christine Blower said: “The report stresses the fact that schools need time for long-term improvement in maths to occur, yet many schools feel under pressure to improve grades rapidly.

“What they do not go onto say is that this pressure comes directly from Ofsted.”

Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said the report highlighted the variation in maths teaching even within schools.

“There is clearly a need to look at training and ongoing professional development for maths teachers.”

School maths should be more practical, say teenagers

School maths should be more practical, say teenagers

BBC |May 2, 2012

By Judith Burns Education reporter, BBC News_

Maths lessons are seen as difficult, irrelevant and boring by about a third of teenagers, a survey suggests.

Some of the school pupils surveyed for vocational training providers City & Guilds also called for the subject to be geared more towards real life.

But most agreed that maths would be useful once they had left school.

Chris Jones of City & Guilds said: “We are not saying maths should be dumbed down, but it needs to be more relevant to the real world.”

Researchers for City and Guilds interviewed 3,000 school pupils aged from seven to 18 on their attitudes to employment and beliefs about future employment prospects.

The survey results showed that 69% of young people believed that as a subject, maths could help them become successful.

Among seven- to 11-year-olds, 85% agreed that maths would be useful once they left school – but a substantial minority of 16- to 18-year-olds said they found the subject boring (39%), difficult (36%) or irrelevant (30%).

Teenagers had clear ideas for how maths teaching could be improved, with 54% saying it should be geared more to practical scenarios.

One commented: “Show me how I can use maths in business, to do accounts or banking.”

Another said: “Somehow I doubt I’ll use trigonometry anytime in the future.”

Mr Jones said: “Our research shows young people are keen to learn maths and recognise the importance of the subject, but there needs to be more emphasis on the practical application of maths in schools to ensure young people have the skills employers need.”

Tim Stirrup from the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics commented: “Mathematics can be enjoyable as a subject in its own right.

“Introducing how mathematics is applied in the workplace is indeed a useful tool for teaching and learning mathematics.”

‘Ambitious and entrepreneurial’The survey also looked at how optimistic pupils were about the future, finding that 61% of seven- to 11-year-olds were confident that they would succeed in life, rising to nearly three-quarters of 16- to 18-year-olds.

However, 23% of older teenagers were concerned about finding a job, and 63% worried about money.

The report suggests that today’s young people are ambitious and entrepreneurial, with almost half of the 16- to 18-year-olds questioned saying that they would like to run their own business.

Contact with employers was the most highly rated source of information on jobs, with 88% of 16- to 18-year-olds saying a visit to an employer had been useful.

However, the report also suggests that only a quarter of this age group had actually visited a potential employer.

The report says that most young people have done work experience, but many found their work placement irrelevant or of poor quality.

Mr Jones said: “More needs to be done to ensure young people get the advice and experience they deserve.”

What Do I Do If My Child Has Maths Anxiety?

Maths anxiety: the numbers are mounting

On the 30th April 2012 the Guardian published an article written by a parent whose daughter had spent many years suffering from Maths anxiety. Kate Brian’s daughter Flora was just six years old when she told her parents that she didn’t understand anything that was being taught in her Maths lessons in school. The school regularly reassured her parents that there was nothing wrong but Kate Brian recalls how:

“she sometimes made wildly illogical guesses when attempting basic addition and was easily confused by anything numerical. She was also getting upset about maths at school, but the more her teachers tried to reassure us that she was doing well, the more Flora insisted she didn’t let them see that she spent maths lessons copying other children.”

They took her to a specialist who told them that Flora wasn’t dyscalculic so in desperation they visited an educational psychologist who confirmed that her problems were linked to anxiety rather than a lack of ability. Maths anxiety is thought to affect approximately a quarter of the population which means that around 2 million children are suffering from this mostly unrecognised condition. Maths anxiety was first identified in the 1950s but recent studies involving brain scans show interesting brain functions of children with the condition. These children respond to sums in the same way that those with phobias react to spiders or snakes with an increase in activity in the fear centres of the brain. The consequence of this is a decrease in activity in the problem solving areas which makes it harder to produce the right answer.


Does My Child Have Maths Anxiety?

If your child is suffering from a variety of symptoms listed by AnxietyATOZ and these are accompanied by them making wildly illogical guesses when attempting basic addition or they are easily confused by anything numerical they may be suffering from Maths anxiety.

Psychological Symptoms:

  • Confusion.
  • Lack of confidence.
  • Panic-Stricken Worry.
  • Negative thoughts.
  • Sudden Memory Loss.

Physiological Symptoms:

  • Rapid heart beat.
  • Sweating.
  • Nausea.
  • Stomach disorders.
  • Headaches.


What Do I Do If My Child Has Maths Anxiety?

The good news is that Maths anxiety can be overcome because it is confidence based and not linked to a student’s mathematical ability. Mike Ellicock, chief executive of the charity National Numeracy, explains:

“Labelling and categorising children into those who can and can’t do maths isn’t helpful. There’s nothing more certain to be a self-fulfilling prophecy … but given encouragement and the right support, everyone can meet a functional level of numeracy.”

Additionally, the various websites that discuss how to overcome the condition recommend extra tuition in Maths. They all concur with Peter Lacey, of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics who says teachers:

“are often constrained by a system focused on targets and attainment levels. “If you say slow down, ministers get concerned, but if you want to build a tall and secure house, you make sure your foundations are right. Sometimes there’s a rush in the earlier years of teaching that interferes with children gaining real confidence – once it goes wrong at that stage, everything afterwards is insecure. The pressure to get children to a particular level in tests at 11 can mean teaching them tricks to get good outcomes rather than making sure they are confident in their understanding.”

At Kip McGrath Scunthorpe we agree wholeheartedly with this assertion. We regularly see students who, for a variety of reasons have been unable to gain a secure understanding of some of the earlier topics and because of this struggle with the more complex areas of Maths. This is because of the way in which early Maths topics lay the foundations for more advanced mathematics. Without a solid grasp of the foundation areas it becomes harder and harder to access later Maths concepts. As a result, these children then become convinced that they can’t do Maths and their confidence and motivation steadily decrease. When concerned parents contact us the first thing we do is carry out a FREE assessment of their child’s Maths abilities in order to discover the gaps in their understanding. We then use the proven Kip McGrath tutoring methods to fill in the gaps by working with the students on each topic until they have a sound knowledge and are ready to move on. All our students make good progress academically and grow in confidence as a result of the work we do with them. Kate Brian herself testifies on the value of this approach:

“For Flora, extra help rediscovering the basics, along with a gentle approach at her new school, began to reap benefits and she gradually caught up. She has been happier and less stressed….”

If you are worried about your child’s Maths don’t worry. Call us today to find out what we can do to help.

Maths anxiety: the numbers are mounting

Maths anxiety: the numbers are mounting

The Guardian World News

Flora Brian, whose maths anxiety was not easily diagnosed

Flora Brian, whose maths anxiety was not easily diagnosed. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian

My daughter Flora was just six when she announced that she didn’t understand a thing in maths lessons at school. We raised it at the next parents’ evening and were reassured that her maths was fine, but we began to notice that she sometimes made wildly illogical guesses when attempting basic addition and was easily confused by anything numerical. She was also getting upset about maths at school, but the more her teachers tried to reassure us that she was doing well, the more Flora insisted she didn’t let them see that she spent maths lessons copying other children.

It wasn’t until she moved to a new school two years later that her difficulties were identified, revealing such a vast gulf between her attainment in numeracy and in literacy that we suspected she could have dyscalculia, a kind of dyslexia with numbers. We took her to a specialist, who made it clear that although Flora wasn’t dyscalculic, her maths was very poor. She advised that Flora shouldn’t be taught maths in a normal class. In despair, we turned to an educational psychologist, and discovered that Flora’s problems weren’t down to ability, but to anxiety.

Maths anxiety, a feeling of fear about maths, is believed to affect about a quarter of the population, which would equate to more than 2 million schoolchildren in England alone, along with thousands of teachers. Many of us are familiar with that blind panic when faced with a maths problem we can’t fathom, but maths anxiety isn’t always recognised or understood.

Maths anxiety was first identified in the 1950s, but the devastating way it affects performance is only now becoming evident. For the first time, researchers at Stanford University in the US have used scans to see what goes on inside the brains of children with maths anxiety, and discovered that they respond to sums in the same way that people with phobias might react to snakes or spiders, showing increased activity in the fear centres. This in turn causes a decrease in activity in the problem-solving areas, making it harder to come up with the right answers. Dr Vinod Menon, the professor who led the project, explains its significance: “Our research is important because it is the first to identify the neural and developmental basis of maths anxiety, and our findings have significant implications for its early identification and treatment. It is also important because it shows that math anxiety in children is real. It cannot be wished away. It needs to be attended to and treated if it persists.”

If maths anxiety has such a devastating effect on ability, why aren’t we doing more about it? Most teachers and academics know it exists, but there are no formally established diagnostic tools to determine when worrying about maths becomes “maths anxiety”. What’s more, it can be counterproductive to tell a child that they have a problem, as Mike Ellicock, chief executive of the charity National Numeracy, explains: “Labelling and categorising children into those who can and can’t do maths isn’t helpful. There’s nothing more certain to be a self-fulfilling prophecy … but given encouragement and the right support, everyone can meet a functional level of numeracy.”

We clearly haven’t been offering the right support, as almost half of the UK’s adults are only capable of basic maths. It doesn’t help that we often see maths as the preserve of a few geeks. Maths is a clear-cut subject where answers are either right or wrong, and teaching methods focusing on quick recall, mental arithmetic and on answers given in front of the class are unhelpful to those who are less confident. Most teachers understand that confidence is as important as competence when it comes to maths achievement, but Peter Lacey, of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, says they are often constrained by a system focused on targets and attainment levels. “If you say slow down, ministers get concerned, but if you want to build a tall and secure house, you make sure your foundations are right. Sometimes there’s a rush in the earlier years of teaching that interferes with children gaining real confidence – once it goes wrong at that stage, everything afterwards is insecure. The pressure to get children to a particular level in tests at 11 can mean teaching them tricks to get good outcomes rather than making sure they are confident in their understanding.”

Experts in the field, such as Professor David Sheffield of Derby University’s Centre for Psychological Research, who is one of the country’s leading specialists in maths anxiety, believe it has a lifelong effect. So what would he advise? “The first thing to say is don’t do more maths. More maths is unlikely to work because it’s actually an anxiety problem. Try to deal with the anxiety with simple approaches like relaxation or breathing exercises. We did one study where we got people to do a relaxation exercise and then followed them up. Their anxiety scores had dropped and they were able to solve more problems.”

For Flora, extra help rediscovering the basics, along with a gentle approach at her new school, began to reap benefits and she gradually caught up. She has been happier and less stressed, which Michael Roach, her headteacher at John Ball school in south-east London, suggests may be the secret. “What we have seen in recent years is that tackling the anxiety and self-esteem of children and thus improving their confidence and related attitudes to maths has been key. Once the anxiety sets in, it can be very challenging to shift. We work hard to make maths relevant within a real-life context and, most of all, fun.”

If we want to improve national numeracy skills, we need to think more carefully about how to address the widespread anxiety about the subject, focusing on understanding rather than setting targets. Perhaps in the meantime, a few relaxation exercises could make all the difference.

Crazy Maths Trick – Multiply up to 20 x 20 in your Head

Crazy Maths Trick – Multiply up to 20 x 20 in your Head

School maths lessons: Pupils ‘scared to ask for help’ – How Can I Help My Child Do Better In School

I read with interest the article in the BBC Education News that highlighted an increased reticence among students about asking for help with their maths as they get older. The survey that questioned students aged 10-16 shows a steep decline in students seeking help from 66% at the top end of Primary school to just 33% amongst 16 year olds.

Of the 15-16 year olds questioned half of them gave the reason that they “felt they should already know the answer.” Furthermore, the survey highlighted a much higher proportion of boys asserting that they were “very good at maths.”

These figures led me to consider the proportion of Kip McGrath Scunthorpe students who are enrolled with us for Maths tuition either as a discrete subject or alongside another subject. The results were very revealing and, to a certain extent, made sense in light of the survey results.

The above chart shows the percentage ratio of male to female students at four different stages of schooling. In Primary school the proportions are almost even with approximately 48% of our Maths students being boys. There is then a sharp and consistent decline until we see 100% of our A’Level Maths students being girls. This trend is made clearer by the line graph below.

I then began to wonder how the results of both my in-house research and the article’s survey compared with last years GCSE attainments at A* to C Grade. The results produced by the Guardian’s analysis did not fit with my figures. The Guardian suggested that boys were ahead of girls in both 2010 and 2011 with each gender improving at a similar rate.

This sparked my curiousity so I decided to drill into the figures to try and understand why boys appeared to be outstripping girls even though they were not receiving the same levels of extra tuition. The actual figures when broken down into individual grades revealed that the results aren’t so straight forward. Again, I have produced a graph which illustrates the differences between the assumption drawn by the Guardian using the standard A* to C Grade measurement and what I believe to be the real picture.

As the graph above shows the growth rate of girls attaining A* and A Grades outstrips boys. Additionally, where we see a dip in B Grades between 2010 and 2011 girls’ reduction in progress was less than boys’. It is only the rates of those attaining C Grades that appears to match the inferences drawn from combining all the Grades into one figure. But all these figures would suggest that girls are, overall, catching up with boys in the higher grades within this attainment banding which is why there is a smaller growth rate for C Grade achievers, even though the growth rate for A* to C achievers was the same as boys year on year.

If this is the case, what does this say about the difference between boys and girls in their maths abilities? Most educational professionals would tell you that boys tend to be more mathematically minded generally so it is perhaps, not surprising that boys are ahead of girls allbeit by a small margin. But I believe this reveals a bigger difference between the two genders.

Firstly, when it comes to seeking extra help girls are more likely to ask for support right the way through their school careers regardless of peer pressure wheras boys don’t want to admit that they need help. Our own Centre’s figures would back this hypothesis up as the highest proportion of Maths students is at Primary level when they are young enough to be influenced by their parents to attend even though they may be reluctant at first. Indeed, more often than not, it is the boys who tell us during assessments that they are good at the subject in question even though the actual assessment reveals the opposite to be true.

Secondly, it highlights that even girls who are doing reasonably well at a subject are prepared to seek help and put in the extra work to get a higher grade while boys are more likely to be happy to coast through to a lower grade than they are actually capable of achieving.

Furthermore, the actual figures reveal a worrying downward trend in boys Maths achievement levels which is masked by the oversimplistic A* to C banding of results. This, as can be seen by the linked graphs below, is matched by an upward trajectory in girls achievements over the same period.

According to the boys’ results the .5% dip in boys B Grade achievements almost entirely accounts for the increase of .6% in C Grades. When you allow for the .3% increase in male students entering the achievement band in 2011 .1% can be allocated to the C Grade increase and the other .2% can be attributed to the A* Grade increase. The A Grade figures were static year on year. By contrast, the girls saw a .4% drop in B Grade achievers but only half of this can be allocated to the .2% increase in C Grade results. This leaves a further .2% to be taken from the drop in B Grade achievements and the .3% increase of  A* to C Grade achievers overall to be distributed between the higher A and A* results.

It is my belief therefore, based on these figures, that not only are girls doing better in Maths at GCSE, they are also improving their results year on year. In comparison boys are not doing as well as they appear to be and their results are getting worse year on year.

In my opinion there are three basic reasons for this:

  1. Boys are more prone to being overconfident of their abilities and simply less aware that they need help with maths.
  2. Even when boys do realise that they need extra help because they are not getting the grades they need they are less likely to ask for assistance either because of male pride or peer pressure.
  3. Boys are more likely to “coast” and not put in the extra work they need to achieve according to their ability as long they are on target for what they are being told is the minimum required grade.

We had one student who, having chosen his friendship goup early on in his High School career, adjusted his study efforts and achievements in order to remain with his friends. This decision drastically hindered his ability to get the grades of which he was capable.

So what can be done to turn around this worrying trend?

  1. It is vitally important that parents are aware of these facts. They need to monitor their sons’ progress even more closely than their daughters’ from an early age so that they can get the extra help, if needed, before they fall prey to peer pressure as they get older. In our experience initially reluctant male students who first attend Kip McGrath Scunthorpe while in Primary School are more likely to return for tuition later on in their school careers. This is because they see the benefits of extra tuition, are in the important habit of putting in extra work and want to achieve their potential.
  2. The Government must stop oversimplifying the results by lumping the A* to C Grades into one measurement of progess in education standards.This is painting an inaccurate picture of boys’ and girls’ achievements in Maths by understating the progress of girls and masking the drop in boys’ results. Worse still, it is giving boys a false impression of what they need to achieve and providing them with an officially validated reason for coasting their way to C Grades.
  3. It is vital that we instil a positive study ethic in boys at a young age and encourage them to push themselves to achieve what they are capable of and not just do the bare minimum. This, of course, touches on the validity of appropriate levels of homework for Primary age children and we will discuss this further in our forthcoming response to the recent scrapping of the homework guidelines.

In conclusion, we must set the bar higher by paying more attention to the progress of students in A* and A Grades in order to push currently reluctant male students to do better. It is sadly clear that there are far too many students who are being left to under-achieve in order to satisfy an artificial and overly simplistic measurement of the progress in standards. It is not right that any child whether male or female is prevented from living up to their ability levels. At Kip McGrath Scunthorpe we work with all our students to instil the confidence and subject knowledge they need and provide them with the ambition to fulfil their potential.

If you believe that your child needs extra support with their learning please contact us to find out how we can help you.

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