Malmesbury School is a large, outstanding comprehensive set in a small picturesque market town in Wiltshire. In the middle ages, thanks to the presence of the Abbey, the town of Malmesbury was actually a recognised centre of learning. Today, Malmesbury School continues that tradition. Rated a High Performing Academy, it heads up the Athelstan Multi-Academy Trust of three secondary schools. It also has National Support School status, is a Teaching School and leads the Avon Teaching School Alliance.
Core Maths at Malmesbury School is taught by a team of three teachers. There are stringent requirements that need to be met in order to secure entry to the sixth form at Malmesbury. This provides the team with a very capable group of students to teach, the majority of whom have achieved a Grade C or B at GCSE.
Core Maths is compulsory for any student not taking AS Maths. Of the fifty plus students taking Core Maths, a number of them had reservations at first about being made to continue with mathematics in any form. However, as the year has gone on, most of these students have changed their opinion and have responded positively to the course. Core Maths teachers note that students have realised that not only can they apply skills from Core Maths to real life, but also to other subjects. Students have also been swayed by the enthusiasm that their teachers have for the course.
‘They can see we are backing this, we support this and they trust us. They see that this is something that we believe in. They’ve started to come around, to realise how important that it is for them.’ Core Maths Teacher 1
This is mirrored in the comments of the students. One student for example said:
As the time has gone on, I have started to enjoy it more. My teacher tries to make it interesting for everyone and does a really good job of making everyone not resent it as much as they did at the start. So, it’s changed from the way that I saw it to start off with and I see it in a better way now. I mean I’m still not a massive fan of maths but for one free period a week it’s really not too bad. Core Maths Student
Core Maths will put you at an advantage for the future. Core Maths Student
Teachers acknowledge that some of the initial reluctance of the current year 12s was owing to them not having been informed about Core Maths early enough. This of course will not be the case for following cohorts. In fact, during this summer term visit to the school, some of the year 12 Core Maths students, including a number who had initially been sceptical about the course, were animatedly preparing a presentation for student in the year below. The purpose of the presentation was to further inform them about Core Maths and to share current Core Maths students’ own experience of taking the course.
I’ve been asked to do an assembly for the year 12s coming up next year in Core Maths. We’re trying to pick out all the fun aspects to show them because actually if you don’t have a lot of maths background then it would be useful. Core Maths Student
The presentation was intended to be a collaborative one involving both Core Maths teachers and students. Teachers have found that the Year 11s are now so well informed about the course, that as summer drew close, they were more likely to be weighing up which option is best for them – AS level maths or Core Maths. Information about Core Maths is even starting to trickle down through the school.
‘I’ve actually been chatting to a year 10 tutor and they’ve started picking up about it already. They’re like “we’ve heard about some maths we can do if we stay on”. So she’s asked if I can go into her tutor time and maybe have a little chat to them and talk to them about what it is.’ Core Maths Teacher 1
Teachers expect that the challenge in the future is more likely to be in dealing with students who found GCSE challenging and maybe just scraped a C. These students are likely to have been looking forward to giving up maths after GCSE. However, teachers at Malmesbury are convinced that reservations can be overcome by stressing the practicality of Core Maths and the benefits for students’ other subject areas.
It’s about emphasising to them that when you go off to university there’s a lot of courses that have maths content. Two years without doing maths and they’re going to forget quite a lot. Keeping maths fresh in their mind - if they can just see that as important.’ Core Maths Teacher 1
At Malmesbury School, Core Maths is delivered ‘at scale’. This was a strategic choice made by the Senior Lead Team who consider it a very useful qualification. Malmesbury also has a history of offering alternative options to students who are not doing A-Level or AS Level maths.
There are five option blocks for year 12 students with Core Maths offered in every tutor group block. Class sizes range from as small as three to as large as eighteen. The smallest class exists because the majority of students in that option block are taking A Level maths. The benefits of such a small class though are obvious. The teacher has been able to go at a pace that is largely set by the students, whilst also accommodating their different learning needs.
All Core Maths students at Malmesbury receive 1.5 hours a week of teaching time. Teachers find this sufficient to cover the course content while still providing the opportunity to explore topics in greater detail if that’s what students require. They note that teaching a new course to scale can be challenging given the numbers involved. In order to overcome this, Core Maths is delivered in a very collaborative way. The Core Maths co-ordinator prepares the lessons and trials them initially. The other two members of the team will then use this tested version possibly with some modifications with their classes. The team shares feedback on what worked and what did not, with a view to refining the resources so they can be used in subsequent years.
While lesson reviews are not necessarily formally carried out, this sharing of feedback and experience is considered very important at Malmesbury. Teachers value the opportunity to collaborate on lesson development. As a result there is more uniformity of experience across the three Core Maths classes for students. Although notably, teachers retain a certain amount of flexibility in the classroom, responding to student need and making adaptations to the lessons as necessary.
In terms of lesson content, the team has actively steered away from traditional GCSE/lower school type lessons. They have chosen instead to use lots of variety in their teaching – modelling, estimation, mini-projects, and problems with a real life focus, all feature heavily. This is all done with the aim of keeping Core Maths interesting and consequently students engaged. Teachers note the importance of this particularly given the compulsory nature of the course at Malmesbury.
The Core Maths team is very clear about the positive impact that they want Core Maths to have on other subjects that students are studying. Staff across the school have been made aware of the content of the Core Maths course and have full access to lesson content on the school network. All teachers are actively encouraged to approach the Core Maths teachers if they want support with the maths element of their own subject.
The response from staff has, so far, been encouraging. For example a science teacher asked the team recently for any available resource that could be used in support of teaching students about standard deviation. The head of geography, head of humanities and a biology teacher have also shared details of the maths component of their courses. The Core Maths team have reviewed these and planning is already underway for how support can best be provided.
‘Spearman’s rank is something I’m thinking about feeding in. It’s not currently in the syllabus that we’re covering but we know we’ll support Geography. So we’re going to try and include that in our teaching. In Core Maths we’ll just try and reemphasis that and also to teach it from another perspective which will help them [students] as well. So they’ll learn it in geography and in maths. That might give them two approaches that they could take to solve the same problem.’ Core Maths Teacher 1
A comment from one student indicates that this will be welcomed:
There’s stuff in Biology that we don’t do in Core Maths that’s maths related. Like lots of other analysis type tests, like chi squared and spearman rank. I’ve learned those in Biology so I might as well just learn them there……. But I appreciate the bit of paper that says I have a Core Maths qualification. Core Maths Student
For now teachers regularly draw attention to the links between Core Maths topics and other subject areas when teaching. For example when they taught normal distribution recently, they made explicit the links with biology and psychology. Next year, teachers plan to strengthen the connections and make them more explicit to students. At the beginning of lessons there will be a note on the interactive whiteboard outlining how the planned topic relates to other A-Level subjects.
Teachers are also looking to develop more context specific resource building on efforts begun this year. These included, the Jelly Blubbers problem which had a biology focus and a Fermi Estimation task which involved using a map and population data.
From September the sequence in which topics are covered will be reordered to support other subject areas more. So for example the statistics module will be covered ahead of the Biology field trip which involves students collecting and analysing a lot of data.
‘If you have those conversations about our content and making those links, it’s building up and then you can start to do the whiteboard stuff.’ Core Maths Teacher 2
While there is not yet evidence for the impact of doing Core Maths on other subjects, teachers are optimistic that by next year this will start to become more obvious. Anecdotal evidence from students also indicates that some are starting to notice the benefits.
‘Sometimes it has good things, like standard deviation. That was really helpful. So when we came to do it in other classes we already had the building blocks to do it.’ Core Maths Student
Assessment of student progress has been done on an informal basis to date. For this first year, the SLT has allowed the Core Maths team to focus on developing and embedding the course, as well as supporting students to settle in rather than insisting on reporting grades for achievement and progress.
Even so, every week students begin the lesson with exam-type questions focusing on skills that they need to refresh or maintain. While not a formal assessment, teachers find it helps to monitor how students are doing and identify areas where they might need more support. The questions are based on or are similar to the types of questions that are available in the sample material. The sample materials themselves will be used closer to the time of the final exam.
We’re trying to pick up on other kind of questions that are similar. We think percentages is quite an important skill. Finance too. So they’ll get lots of little finance questions, estimation questions. We’re trying to feed them in to keep those skills fresh…… Every lesson we have a couple….. So each lesson we can judge if the content is being picked up. Core Maths Teacher 1
Once we know what they can and can’t do from those starter questions we’ll talk about them and actually give them the opportunity to go back through rather than just saying “you’ve got 20%” and moving on. So its all about saying “we know you’ve got a gap there and how can we help fill that gap”. Core Maths Teacher 2
All lessons and resources are stored on the network using presentation software so that students can revisit lessons again as necessary. Lessons are colour coded under the different topics. The colour coding mirrors that of the exam board for ease of access. It enables students to easily spot where one lesson ends and another starts. Storing lessons in this way is intended to help students with revision but also to reduce note taking in class. Teachers are keen to teach Core Maths in an efficient way that minimises the burden on students. In this way, they are supporting students to stay focused on their main A Level subjects while also maximising the likelihood that students will engage fully with Core Maths.
The team at Malmesbury started the course this year with topics that linked back to GCSE. Given that not all of the students wanted to study Core Maths, as in other centres, teachers would recommend choosing topics that are not GCSE related at the start of the course. This is more likely to engage students straight away particularly if they are not fully committed to doing Core Maths initially. Fermi Estimation for example is different and students were initially wary, but they found it fun and could see that it was giving them new skills.
Assessment is also an important issue. It could be kept informal as at Malmesbury where the use of mini-assessments give teachers a strong indication of students’ progress. Or it may need to be more formal, particularly if senior management are going to want grades. Either way, the team advise considering the nature of the assessment methods to be used early on.
The links between Core Maths and other A Level subjects have become very evident to the team throughout the year. As a result they would recommend that centres explore and consider those links carefully. Even just referencing the links can be extremely helpful to the students.
Finally, teachers at Malmesbury are sensitive to the demands placed on students by their other A Level subjects, particularly around exam time. The team would recommend making the course as self-contained as possible and using the summer term to cover easier topic areas.
‘If you’ve got students doing three A-Levels, they want to be secure that its not going to adversely impact on their A-levels…. That has to be crystal clear to students. If you work in the lessons, you’ll be fine.’ Core Maths Teacher 3
Ultimately the design and delivery of Core Maths needs to place as little burden as possible on students so that they can focus most of their efforts on their A-Level subjects, a sentiment echoed by students.
Next year when I’m revising for A-Levels that’ll be what decides my life. OK Core Maths is maybe going to help me get into a university…….but with my three subjects, they’re so vital to me getting into university that I’m going to be working so hard to get them. I will put some effort into Core Maths …….I’ll look over everything but I’m not going to prioritise it as much as my core subjects. Core Maths Student