Monthly Archives: July 2015

Stop teaching ‘thousands’

If you haven’t already read my rant Stop teaching simile! then I’d suggest starting with that first. However, having started something, now things keep cropping up that I think the same sort of thing about, so here’s an addition to what seems to be turning into a series of “Stop teaching….” posts.

Stop teaching thousands

This will seem silly at first. Of course we need to teach thousands. But I’m coming to the conclusion that we tackle it in the wrong way in some ways. We expect children to work with increasingly large numbers as they go through primary education, and so once they seem to have grasped hundreds, it seems to make sense to move them onto thousands. Except, there’s a difference in the way the numbers work here, and it’s not always obvious when we teach it in that way.

The problem is not so much the thousands, and the next ‘column’ in our place value system. We often call it the ‘ten-thousands’ column, but like with the ‘tens’ column, we don’t often use that language for numbers that include a digit in that place.

Consider the number 54,321.

We don’t treat the 5 as a digit in its own right here; rather it becomes the tens digit of the section of the number that we describe as 54 thousand. It works just like the tens digit.

The same is true as we move over one more column. Consider 654,321

Here the 6 is merely part of the 654 thousands that are needed. It’s why we use commas after every third digit starting from the right. It’s not just a handy number, it actually helps us to read them.

So when we teach thousands, we should teach them as a block. It makes dealing with larger numbers much simpler. Recognising that each section of up to 3 digits is read as a single ‘chunk’ of a number makes it easier to read large numbers, and to avoid the common errors with placeholder zeroes. When a child needs to write four hundred and six thousand, and seventy four, it’s much easier to think of the blocks of 406 in the thousands block, and then 74 in the units section. It even invites the ‘punctuation’ of the number:

406, 074

(I grant you that the last section is lacking a name. I’m tending to prefer to call the very right-hand column “ones” and then refer to the last three digits as units, but there may be a better term. Suggestions welcome!)

The wondrous thing about so much of maths is that patterns are often scalable. The same system now allows us to consider millions, billions (so long as you’ve come to terms with the US billion) and to extend the system in groups of three, rather than one place at a time. Children are then very quickly able to read


as 123 million, 456 thousand, 789.

It also allows them to see the structure of the system so that they can identify any point in the place value structure. So, in the case above the digit 5 is clearly in the tens position within the thousands block: it shows us how many tens of thousands there are.

So, in truth, the argument is not for teachers to stop teaching thousands, but rather to consider thousands as a block of three digits in the numbering system following the HTO pattern.


Perhaps most importantly, before even thinking about numbers larger than 999, we should ensure that children have a secure understanding the relationships between the first three digits and their positions, fully grasping the nature of powers of 10. Once that is secure, rather than simply extending to thousands, it should be easier to teach the whole thousands block, right up to 999,999 with ease – and then to further extend.

Since posting this, Alex Weatherall has raised some perfectly reasonable points about the use of this structure. As with so many things, there is a risk that it becomes a prop which fails to secure clear understanding. So let me stress, I’m not proposing that we extend place value grids in this way. I present the image merely to make the point. My personal view is that if a child still needs a place value chart to organise numbers, then they shouldn’t be dealing with anything greater than a three-digit number.

How dare they?

I arrived home fairly late this evening, and am writing this still having not even got round to removing my tie. Let this be an indication of my fury.

I don’t imagine that many education ministers know who I am, and any who do are probably not too fussed about upsetting me. I try my best to work productively with the department as a member of its Teacher Reference Group*, and try to have an understanding of the challenges of government, rather than just being a moaner.

But enough is enough.

The way the whole curriculum and assessment débacle has been handled over the past few years has been beyond chaotic, and despite all the positive words about workload and timescales, it seems that the department or its ministers continues to have a complete disregard for the profession.

Schools and local authorities are in a state of confusion about assessment after levels, and this is repeatedly exacerbated by the actions of the department. In recognition of this problem, Nick Gibb announced an Assessment Commission to “support primary and secondary schools with the transition to assessment without levels”. It seems that the government had failed to notice that the transition should already have happened – the new curriculum is coming to the end of it first year. But more to the point, having received a report from the commission, it seems that the department has decided to sit on it over the summer.

No explanation is offered. No apology for the further chaos (although I fully expect a “I make no apology…” speech from Mr Gibb in due course). No further information is provided about what can be expected. It appears that someone in the department has decided that despite all the problems already caused, despite the clear implications for workload, despite the protocol demanding lead-in times of at least a year, that politics is more important than education.

I sat in a Teacher Reference Group meeting barely two week ago where many of these issues were raised. Repeatedly we were told by representatives from the department that ministers were “acutely aware” of the challenges schools were facing. Well, it appears that they are aware, but indifferent.

How dare they?

How dare a department which has foist immeasurable change on its schools; a department which has repeatedly caused delay and confusion; a department which has continually claimed to be supportive of the profession – make a decision such as this, about such long-awaited guidance, and fail even to properly inform the profession of its actions.

If this post appears irate, forgive me. I feel cheated personally. I have repeatedly told people over recent months to be reassured about their direction of travel. Over and again I have advised good leaders to take comfort from the forthcoming report, reassured that a good band of professionals would offer much-needed clarity and confidence at this time of massive upheaval. To all of them I apologise. It turns out that the repeated denigrations of the department which I have attempted to quell were well-founded. It really does appear that ministers care not a jot for the workload implications, the professional implications, or even the educational implications for hundreds of thousands of school pupils. The whole process feels like sticking two fingers up at the profession, and it stinks.

How dare they?

*Of course, I may cease to be a member of the TRG pretty quickly after this post.

One rule for them…

I have a lot of time for the people who work at the Department for Education. Apart from anything else, I feel for them when they get much of the flack that really ought to be aimed at ministers. However, as is often the case, I am using DfE here as the shorthand for the department and its ministers as a collective.

And they need to get their act together.

It was clear that Michael Gove wanted to see a transformation of the National Curriculum back in 2010 before the General election. So why is it that we’re still waiting for clarity on so many things?

Schools have been arguing throughout this process that the change has been too rapid. At every stage, we have pointed out that the expectations being placed on schools have been unhelpful. A finalised curriculum didn’t arrive until less than 12 months before it became statutory. For several weeks in the autumn of 2013, several year groups had no curriculum documentation at all. Yet schools have been required to put the whole curriculum in place – with no additional time or funding  – and will be judged by Ofsted for it.

Plans for the assessment of the curriculum still remain unclear. We finally received sample KS2 papers, less than 12 months before the next cohort of children will be tested, when schools will be held accountable for the teaching of a four-year programme of study that has been published for barely two. Yet schools have been forced to put their own arrangements in place, and will be judged by Ofsted for it

The lack of clarity about the removal of levels led to the introduction of the Assessment Commission, which itself set out its intention to publish its final report before the end of the summer term. Well schools in Leicestershire closed for the summer on Friday, but the report remains unpublished. Yet schools have been made to set up their own arrangements and will be judged by Ofsted for them.

None of this would be quite as bad if it weren’t for the fact that this rushed timetable that puts such unhelpful and challenging pressure on schools and their leaders was all set out by the department and its ministers. Yet at every stage, despite the best efforts of schools across the country, it is the department which has failed to provide content of a suitable quality within the needed time again and again and again. It seems that it’s one rule for ministers and another for school leaders.

I understand that developing a new curriculum and assessment framework takes a huge amount of time. That’s what we’ve been saying all along!

Assessment Journeys

A fascinating insight into the journey and thinking behind one school’s assessment journey – with some free resources attached too!


A fascinating year: life after levels

There was a lot of debate both online and in ‘face to face’ life during the summer term 2014 about the removal of National Curriculum levels. Schools seemed to be deciding either to buy into a new tracking system or to remain with levels for one more year to wait and see what happened. At this time I took Michael Tidd’s (@MichaelT1979) Key Objectives ( and created a very basic Excel spreadsheet (although Michael made it look far more professional). The aim was to allow my Y1 teacher to trail assessing against objectives she was actually teaching, but still to give myself as headteacher some data which I could share with Governors, the LA and Ofsted. (Ofsted duly visited in May and seemed happy with the system, but mainly I think because of the progress clearly evident in the books).

This year…

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How secure is secure?

One of the (many) challenges of the new world of assessment is knowing just how much of the curriculum a child needs to secure to be on track to achieve the vital scaled score of 100 in the new tests. This week we got a little glimmer of help on this front, when the new test frameworks were published.

Now, I should stress from the start that I don’t offer this as a guaranteed measure (far from it), or even necessarily advise that you take any notice of it. But for those people looking closely at the new expectations, it’s certainly a matter of interest. I have started going through the performance descriptors tucked away in the new test frameworks which outline “the typical characteristics of pupils in Year 6 (or Year 2) working at the threshold of the expected standard”

The DfE themselves include a couple of caveats here which are worth noting, that the frameworks are not designed for teacher assessment or to guide teaching and learning (full text below). Nevertheless, the importance placed on the tests mean that it is useful for schools to have this information as a guide. It is my intention to repeat this process for each test, but I have started with Maths as it is the most straightforward.

The first key thing to note is that there appears to be a real difference in expectations of ‘coverage’ across the two key stages. The criteria for scoring 100 on the KS1 test match almost exactly with the specifications of the Year 2 curriculum: in essence, children will need to have learned almost the entire KS1 curriculum to be ‘on-track’ for scoring 100 in the KS1 Maths tests.

By contrast, the framework seems to show that children will not be expected to be secure in the entirety of the primary curriculum to reach the expected score of 100. In fact, in mathematics, it looks as though achieving around 60% of the Year 6 criteria securely should be just about sufficient to reach the golden score of 100. That’s based on cross-referencing each of the 48 Y6 curriculum objectives against the statements from the performance descriptor. Alongside this, it appears that almost the entire spread of Y5 objectives will be needed at a secure level. Neverthless, this is a good deal less than some of us feared (I had previously been aiming for 85% security as a minimum).

Interestingly, if you strip the objectives back to the 30 I set out in my Key Objectives documents, then the 60% threshold still holds true. If you’re using only the NAHT’s Key Performance Indicators, then the percentage will need to rise to around 70% (as there are far fewer of these).

You can download the full document to see the direct comparison between Y5/6 maths objectives (taken directly from the National Curriculum) and the item from the performance descriptor here:


I shall endeavour to repeat the process for the Reading and GPS tests (although reading is much harder to pin down) if I can. I have now looked at the other subjects, and it’s worth being aware that 70% does not look like a universal requirement; it’s much harder to separate out the content for the GPS tests because of the way the curriculum is (poorly) organised, and it’s virtually impossible to draw comparisons for the Reading statements because the statutory curriculum is very broad and focuses largely on discussion and teaching approaches rather than outcomes. Nevertheless, I’ve tried to draw the comparisons as best I can, and it seems that for the other subjects children will be expected to be familiar with almost the entire curriculum content. I have attached the relevant curriculum comparison documents here:

Compare Y1-2 GPS objectives to framework

Compare Y2 Maths objectives to framework

Compare Y2 Reading objectives to framework

Compare Y5-6 GPS objectives to framework

Compare Y5-6 Maths objectives to framework

Compare Y5-6 Reading objectives to framework

Caveats taken directly from the Maths test framework:

The framework specifies the purpose, format, content and cognitive domains of the key stage 2 mathematics tests; it is not designed to be used to guide teaching and learning or to inform statutory teacher assessment.

This performance descriptor describes the typical characteristics of pupils whose performance in the key stage 2 tests is at the threshold of the expected standard. Pupils who achieve the expected standard in the tests have demonstrated sufficient knowledge to be well placed to succeed in the next phase of their education, having studied the full key stage 2 programme of study in mathematics. This performance descriptor will be used by a panel of teachers to set the standards on the new tests following their first administration in May 2016. It is not intended to be used to support teacher assessment since it reflects only the elements of the programme of study that can be assessed in a paper-based test

What if some inspectors… are wrong?!

Just recently I got into a brief discussion with a headteacher who happened also to be an Ofsted inspector (and had been re-trained under the new in-house arrangements). I was suggesting that we know relatively little about what constitutes effective marking, and therefore it’s hard to make judgements about what a good policy might look like.

The disagreement was outright. This headteacher maintained, with some considerable confidence, that they could tell whether marking was effective just by looking at a few books.

And I couldn’t disagree more.

For as far as I can tell, there is relatively little (if any) research easily available out there about what constitutes effective marking. The EEF toolkit offers very strong indications that feedback is an effective tool for increasing progress, but feedback and marking are not necessarily synonymous.

The toolkit itself sets out a definition of feedback:

Feedback is information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals. It should aim to (and be capable of) producing improvement in students’ learning. Feedback redirects or refocuses either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome.

none of which requires that feedback be given in the form of written marking.

The problem is, a shared wisdom has grown up around marking that can easily be explained, but not necessarily justified. The explanation is simple: people quite rightly pointed out that if marking didn’t lead to some ‘redirection’ or ‘refocusing’ of the learner’s actions, then it was probably wasted. But rather concluding, therefore, that much written marking was useless, instead the presumption became that all marking would be effective if out led to some sort of action. So the marking load continued to increase, and the complexity with it.

I can’t see anywhere that it shows that that was the right conclusion to reach, but it has now become so widely held a view, that it’s hard to argue against. What’s worse: it’s very easy to go from that perceived wisdom to thinking one can spot effective marking. I can certainly identify marking that meets the expected norms of dialogue and “DIRT” and the like. But that’s not necessarily the same as it being effective.

My personal view – equally unsupported by evidence – is that the vast majority of marking is wasteful. As I’ve said before, there’s a real diminishing return after more than a few seconds of looking at work, and by the time it has been marked in detail and acted upon, that return may well be negated by the effort expended. (See Is marking the enemy of feedback?) A whole host of feedback can occur (both to teacher and student) without a pen ever touching the page.

I don’t suggest scrapping marking, but merely point out that whether I’m right or not is frankly academic.

Because for all the clarification documents in the world from Ofsted, nothing will give me the freedom to demonstrate that I can be equally effective without excess marking all the time there are inspectors who believe that they can tell effective marking just by looking at it. The argument from authority of inspectors is impossible to fight against.

And it’s not the first time it’s happened. I’ve had more than one public ‘spat’ in recent months with inspectors who argue that they know better. And it’s easy for them to claim they know better because they’ve been trained. Or they’re well-qualified. Or they’ve been inspecting for x years.

But what if we don’t know? What if that confidence is false? What if what hundreds of inspectors think is ‘effective marking’ is actually just wasteful annotation, but there’s no evidence to show otherwise?

I don’t know if I’m right. I may well not be. But I’m not yet convinced that people like the inspectors I’ve talked to recently are either. Unfortunately, all the time they have authority on their side, they can maintain their false confidences in what they believe that should see.

And no amount of ‘clarification’ from the top will make the slightest difference, all the time inspectors are free to state without a hint of doubt that they know what effective marking looks like. So woe betide any of us who doesn’t conform to their expectations.