Maximising progress in maths

    Published: 13 April 2018

    This is the challenge: how can you improve pupils’ progress in maths? As we know, rarely do pupils make progress in a straight line. Sometimes to learn that next tricky concept we have to unravel a few tricky issues before moving forwards and learning apparently slows (though we would argue this is a different kind of progress).  So how do we keep them moving forward and diminish differences without cutting ?

    There are of course many strategies, ideas and things which can be done. The honest answer is: it takes time and strategic thinking, a relentless focus on every child and a clear plan to have the very best teaching and learning happening day-to-day in every classroom. However, there are also some ‘quick wins’.

    I’ve been visiting schools recently as part of the ‘Improving Progress in Maths’ project which HfL runs. The project started with a training day but has follow up visits each term to discuss the work particular to each school. I work with head teachers, subject leaders and speak to teachers. The schools in the project are on the long journey and each step is being discussed as part of the project. But the quick learning for all of us is starting to emerge:

    For teachers: We have found successful schools have high expectations of their low prior attaining pupils and identify effective scaffolds to support their journey towards age related. It’s fairly obvious to say, but a child is unlikely to surprise you with accelerated progress towards age related expectations if you only ever expect them to complete the tasks that are aimed below this. We are well-meaning when we protect or over-scaffold our low prior attaining pupils, but in all honesty, we are probably not helping.   Many of our low prior attainers can access age related learning with more attention to conceptual or procedural gaps that can be 'fixed' and better access arrangments.

    For subject leaders: if you monitor something – lessons, books, planning or classroom environments, carry out a pupil voice or check that teachers are following your (latest) initiative. Give them feedback. Do it promptly and be clear. Tell your colleagues what you have seen and what conclusions you drew. If it’s going well and looking consistent across the school (or almost consistent) then say so and celebrate it. If there is room for improvement then be specific: Identify what would you like to have seen, discuss and make clear when will you next check. The aim is for your monitoring and feedback to have a real impact.

    For senior leaders and head teachers: Effective leaders are both strategic and relentless in their efforts to identify pupils, particularly those as risk of ‘falling off the radar’ within a key stage. They are also developmental. Who are the pupils not on track for progress? Who monitors them and what is the provision for them? Are there any common threads in a class, cohort or school?  Is there a need for some professional development? The best place to have this conversation is often in pupil progress meetings. Are these focused enough to lead to better progress in future for the pupil(s) identified? In reality, there are many times when the ‘urgent’ will crowd out the ‘important’. An unexpected issue will arise during the school day and take time to resolve, but keeping on track with key actions like high-quality pupil progress meetings and making sure that the staff take them as seriously as you do, will have a big impact on progress. Agree actions at the meeting and check back on them after a short amount of time.

    Getting the overall schedule of the year right: assessment cycles, key dates in the diary, handover meetings at the end of the school year (which take time to really hand over the class in a way that passes the baton, rather than dropping it), also play a key role.

    You are probably thinking - well that’s not rocket science. And I agree with you – it’s not.

    So what would improve your pupils’ progress in maths? This can sometimes be related to the ‘knowing-doing gap’… the chances are, although you agree with much of the above, in reality you also know there are things that your school might be able to do better. You ‘know’ what I’m saying, but you might not be ‘doing’ it all in quite the way you would like to at the moment. This honest reflection is an important step.

    This is why our project is attracting schools and running successfully. Because our team of advisers help schools to have these types of conversations, in a supportive way. To decide what could be tweaked to have an impact and improve progress.

    At the heart of this, what we believe, is that to improve progress in mathematics, schools need to address the leadership aspects which impact upon progress, as well as the teaching and learning in the classroom. Hand-in-hand they have the potential to secure the better progress a school might be looking for. Schools will already have many systems and structures that are working well for them, and the project is designed to highlight and keep those, whilst identifying areas where the impact could be maximised through tweaks to what is already happening.

    There are three ‘by the ways…’ which go with all of this:

    1.There is a toolkit, which explores all of the points made so far. It’s available on our HfL website and helpfully entitled ‘Addressing progress in mathematics – toolkit’. If you’re already a PA+ subscriber, then it’s free within the subscription package. But it is also available to purchase from the eshop here: toolkitprogress2.png




    2. Our project will run again next year, from September 2018 to July 2019, and we are soon going to be inviting Hertfordshire primary schools to express an interest if they would like to join. If you are interested, then you are welcome to email directly (

    3. The single factor I have seen impacting positively on pupils’ attainment and progress in maths this year, is where schools have signed up to HfL’s Essentialmaths planning and resources. This is because the children are receiving a rich diet of knowledge and skills, built up through practical resources, speaking frames and intelligent practice, along with a mixture of problem solving, application and reasoning opportunities. The evidence in pupils’ books I see, of learning and progress, is testament to this.  Find out more about ESSENTIALmaths here.

    Food for thought for those aiming to improve pupil progress in maths in their schools. Yes, the long game is that strategic and relentless focus. But every journey starts with a first step.

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