How To Sabotage Your Own Policy Part 2

May 26, 2014

In the autumn half term I went to a meeting at the DfE about the new curriculum. I was broadly happy to endorse the emphasis on fluency that has now become a major part of the curriculum. I was surprised to learn at that meeting that NCETM were in charge of rolling out the new primary school maths curriculum, but at the time I couldn’t recall much about the organisation so didn’t criticise this. I expressed my concern to Liz Truss, the schools minister, that OFSTED might well be a problem given that they have in the past attempted to redefine “fluency” to mean something other than the fluent recall of basic number facts and methods and also expressed my view that use of mental tests had been the most effective method of encouraging schools to teach fluency.

Later, I looked into NCETM in more detail and wrote a blogpost entitled How To Sabotage Your Own Policy explaining why fluency was under threat due to how policy was being implemented.

Firstly, I pointed out what was at the heart of the debate:

Roughly speaking, the tensions are between those who emphasise the procedures (both written and mental) and those who emphasise applications in context and the ability to talk about maths. In the most recent versions of the debate that I have encountered  the former would claim that they are aiming for fluency and the latter would claim that they are aiming for conceptual understanding. Neither would claim not to be pursuing the other’s goal; those emphasising fluency would claim it leads to greater understanding and those emphasising conceptual understanding would claim it leads to greater fluency. Ultimately, both sides would say you have to teach both fluency and conceptual understanding, but the choice of which to emphasise will have a huge impact on teaching methods. The more you emphasise fluency, the more you will spend time on deliberate practice and relying on explanations, rather than “discovery” to result in understanding. The more you emphasise conceptual understanding, the more time you will spend using card sorts and cuisenare rods, having discussions, trying to learn maths from problem-solving and outsourcing calculations to calculators. It is best described as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy, with only the most extreme of the advocates of conceptual understanding saying kids don’t need times tables and only the most extreme (or possibly those who don’t understand the word “rote”) saying kids should learn procedures without understanding them.

I then repeated the details of OFSTED’s record on opposing fluency in favour of conceptual understanding. I also identified evidence that NCETM could not be trusted on this both in their past record and in what they were then doing.

These fears seem to have been correct, but perhaps what is more surprising is the extent to which the DfE don’t seem to care. I have just seen the following video from NCETM tweeted by the DfE twitter account @educationgovuk:

This is an absolute classic of the “redefining/sidelining fluency” genre.

Highlights include:

  • The claim that people “misunderstand fluency” by not realising that it is “much more about having number awareness” than just recalling facts;
  • The claim that “you can’t do maths unless you talk maths”;
  • “support for thinking skills”;
  • “problem-solving”;
  • “using representations to help children sense-make”;
  • “Fluency is not about doing endless worksheets”;
  • The claim that fluency comes from “using representations” and comes with understanding and making connections.

This is the exact same trick OFSTED pulled. The people who are meant to be encouraging fluency are actually talking about the very things, conceptual understanding and problem-solving, which were used as excuses to sideline fluency in the first place. As I said in my previous post, nobody objects to students understanding what they are doing or solving problems, but the issue here is whether you teach fluency and it leads to understanding or teach understanding (usually with problem-solving and props) and it leads to fluency. If it is the latter, then the same old ideas that have been pushed for the last decade (i.e. since the National Numeracy Strategy was abandoned) will continue to ensure that year 7s will continue to arrive in secondary education without fluency with basic number facts. The irony being that this is being done by the very group that was meant to be helping schools move to a curriculum that had a greater emphasis on fluency.



  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. The real challenge lies in motivating young children to become fluent. You can do this with fear and you can do it with interest. What is the balance of fear and interest in getting 4-8 year olds fluent in number bonds? What constitutes a strategy of fear and what evidence is there of what works in terms of interest in this age group?

    • I think if you are having to either get students interested, or make them live in fear, in order to get them to learn then something has already gone wrong. Students, particularly young ones, should be learning out of habit. It should be what they do, habitually, in the classroom.

      • People need motivation to do anything. There is a massive evidence base for that. If there was no need for motivation there would be no problem with education.

        • Little children are instinctively motivated to learn. They become demotivated because one of the things they learn is that it learning is wrong or ‘uncool’, or, indeed, that learning is so unnatural that they need special ‘motivation’ to do it. I presume that you are one of the people teaching them this.

  3. How do we go about getting this 5th column within his department reported to Gove – he knows about The Blob yet he’s delegating to them.

    With your new fame, Andrew, do you have his phone number?

  4. We’ve been using the ncetm stuff all this year and I really think your worries are unfounded. I think the whole thrust of ncetm is to emphasise that the conceptual and the procedural are vitally interlinked and that the two mutually reinforce each other. We’ve definitely interpreted this as a challenge to do more explicit procedural stuff than previously and give much more emphasis to fluency in number facts than previously. There’s nothing like trying to teach equivalent fractions or long division to reinforce the absolute necessity of fluency with tables. The higher demands of the new curriculum will force primary schools to prioritise ensuring rapid recall of basic number facts. It’s a massive drive in my school.
    I think these ncetm videos show really good practice- I’d be interested in your viewpoint.https://www.ncetm.org.uk/resources/43609
    And ncetm are right in stressing that the new curriculum has 3 aims ( fluency, reasoning and problem solving) so of course they stress the other two as well. And as for representations- this stems from the Singaporean Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract approach. What’s been fascinating about introducing this approach is that it challenges the procedurally minded to think more about conceptual understanding and the conceptually minded to think more about rigour and fluency in teaching procedures. So I think this is one of the two bits of the new curriculum ( the other being computing) that Gove has got right.

  5. […] (rightly in my opinion) criticised them here and here, mainly for appearing to sideline or redefine fluency and it’s importance as a crucial step […]

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