Steering the primary maths ship into uncharted waters: developing effective subject leadership for the year ahead

    Published: 08 September 2020

    After what feels like the longest build up to a start of an academic year, it’s time to raise the anchor and set sail into the unchartered waters of 2020-21. Whilst many things may have changed in schools, the core principles of great maths teaching and leadership have not. In this blog, I will share the learning points made by maths leaders who took part in our ‘Becoming a Highly Effective Maths Subject Leader’ (BHEMSL) 2019-2020 programme.

    During the final (virtual) session of our BHEMSL programme in July, the maths subject leaders spent time sharing their key learning points from the year which they planned to take forward. The varied responses reflected the diverse nature of the context, size, location and set up of each school. 

    Keep calm and lead your curriculum to be ‘back on track’ 

    Leading change and making decisions that can impact hundreds of pupils can be daunting. One theme for the whole of our BHEMSL programme has been mobilising the support, expertise and skills of SLT to support math leaders in their role.

    This leader was nervous about leading the revised curriculum offer which would best match their context, so spent time establishing a shared, clear approach with SLT:

     

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    Having a unified approach and understanding is always important, but is even more crucial during a period of uncertainty. We know that getting all pupils back on track after the lockdown disruption is going to take a significant amount of time and it is likely that action plans will revolve around this as the driving priority.  Schools will have had a range of experiences during Summer 2020 and as such, will need to make decisions to best suit their own staff and pupils. Key consideration may include:

     

    Thinking back Looking ahead
    • What learning was set during lockdown? How many pupils accessed it?
    • How effective was online learning? How do you know?
    • Was the curriculum offering different for those in school to those at home?

    It is important to consider here the difference between what was offered to the children, and what will have been successfully retained.

    • Will you need to return to previous content to secure this learning before moving on to more age related learning? This may mean that concepts take longer to secure.
    • We can’t add more to an already full curriculum without removing some things. If we remove concepts, when will they be taught?
    • How will teachers check prior learning in preparation for the next learning sequence?

     

    Lights, camera, action (plan)

    Part of our summer term focus within the BHEMSL programme was reviewing the progress made so far against the priorities set and identifying aspects which will need to continue into 2020-21.

    Action plans can become an endless list of desirables and given that your action plan for 2019-2020 is unlikely to be completely fulfilled, it may be tempting to just add more onto it.  This year, more than ever, consider what specifically you want to achieve in maths and why. This could include some carry over from the previous year, such as ‘embedding the use of effective maths fluency sessions’, or may focus almost entirely on the current needs including ‘getting back on track’. Manageability is key, both for you and the staff team. Putting learning, pedagogy and everyone’s well-being front and centre.

    This leader reflected that stepping back and interrogating the rationale behind each focus area had helped break down the steps towards the desired outcomes:

     

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    Within our maths subject leader action plan template, we added a short rationale section. We did not want it to become an onerous box filling exercise, but rather act as a reminder to ensure a priority had a clear rationale before going full steam ahead on the actions to be taken.

    If there was ever a time to get your action plan to be a dynamic document, this year may be it. In a previous blog, 7 Ways to Plan Ahead for Effective Maths Leadership, the use of termly action plans was considered in more depth.  

    Using monitoring as an opportunity for ‘on the spot’ CPD

    When reviewing action plans, one on-going focus was to ensure there was a good balance of actions (tangible ways of supporting leaders / teachers / pupils to improve) and monitoring activities. When time is precious, combining the two can be an effective way of evaluating and providing development to staff.

    This leader identified:

     

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    During traditional forms of monitoring, often senior and middle leaders are the ones who look at a wide variety of books regularly, and the thus the ones who gain from the ideas of others, see different recording styles and become more familiar with the progression within the curriculum.

    When used effectively, sharing books with the wider team provides all teachers with the chance to share good practice and become familiar with expectations in other year groups.  This is also exactly what we do in the classroom when we take the opportunity to give ‘on the spot’ feedback to children in the moment as we notice something. This can often be more effective than the child waiting until they receive their marked work back. In both cases, it can also prevent the feedback being misinterpreted or misunderstood, with the opportunity for dialogue and further explanation if needed.

     ‘Check in’ not ‘check up’

    So you want to be able to assess the impact and effectiveness of things you have implemented but don’t want to add to workload? Each individual school will be best placed to make the decisions around monitoring that are right for their school during the autumn term of 2020.

    Initially, monitoring and review is likely to focus on how well teaching has contributed to getting pupils ‘back on track’ with the curriculum. Whatever is decided, the monitoring will need to be appropriate and proportionate.

    Whilst learning walks may take a little longer to re-start, this leader was able to identify that ‘little and often’ can be more successful than just snapshot termly monitoring days:

     

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    Again, schools will have their own protocols for evaluation and monitoring, but several of the BHEMSL leaders were able to articulate examples of where ‘check ins’ had been successful.

    Another example focused on the use of daily fluency sessions for each class and it being more effective and more straightforward for the maths leader to be covered for the 15 minute session once a week to allow her to model and monitor the implementation across a term rather than have one whole day. This allowed for the leader to monitor the impact over time and address issues quickly rather than wait until the end of the term.
     

    Small steps add up to make a big difference

    Whilst leading whole school training can feel like a big ‘tick’ toward having impact, the culmination of many smaller actions can be just as powerful. The little pockets of time spent demonstrating a resource to one member of staff, tweaking plans with an NQT or time complimenting a pupil on their maths work all add up to make a big difference. 

    This maths leader reflected on the impact they had made on one specific member of staff:

     

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    When you feel you have so much to work on across the school, this could feel like a drop in the ocean. But as part of our discussions, leaders identified that not only would this improve the quality of support by this staff member but they may share this knowledge with others, they may be keener to use other resources or may be more enthused to ask for help on other aspects of support in maths.

    Maths leadership isn’t just leading a ‘bells and whistles’ INSET in September; it is the small actions day in, day out that can contribute to a sustained culture of improvement and increased confidence surrounding maths in your school.  

    So what would be your key ‘take forward’ from 2019-20 to 2020-21?

    As I alluded to in the opening, whilst many aspects of school life may have changed, the core principles of great maths teaching and leadership haven’t.

    It may be tempting to write off 2019-20 as too disrupted but there are likely to be some successful aspects which can be taken forward into 2020-21 and beyond.

    • Which priority did you make the most progress on? Why? How can that success be built upon this year?
    • Think about a member of staff who progressed well. What made the difference? Can that be replicated with more staff?
    • What aspects of home learning and communicating with families were successful? Can any aspects feed into your provision going forward?

    We are looking forward to welcoming delegates onto our ‘Becoming a Highly Effective Mathematics Subject Leader’ 2020-21 programme. If you are a maths leader looking to enhance the impact of your role, please visit: https://hfl.mobi/BecomingMathsSL


    Further related reading:

    The magnificent seven: 7 ways to plan ahead for effective maths leadership

    'It ain't what you intend, it's the way it is implemented, and that's what gets results'

    Take a look through Ofsted’s three mathematics eyes. What can you see?

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