Published on: 08 Dec 2016

Good teachers; the way they are taught maths (in ability groups) and the fact that we dedicate so much time to it.

Five reasons why Northern Ireland’s primary schools are leading the way in maths

One primary school principal reflects on the methods schools in Northern Ireland are adopting to put them among the top performers in maths

This week’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report found that Northern Ireland (NI) primary children are the best in Europe in maths and sixth in the world.

I asked our 11-year-olds why they thought NI children had done so well and they put it down to a few reasons including: good teachers; the way they are taught maths (in ability groups) and the fact that we dedicate so much time to it.

There is a lot of truth in that.

But on reflection I think it a few other things also come into the mix:

1. Numeracy is a priority and we explain why.

In the vast majority of NI schools, there is a clear focus on high standards in numeracy, right from the start. A significant amount of teaching time is dedicated towards numeracy; we value it and allocate time and resources to it.

Moreover, we make it explicitly clear to parents and children that a child’s ability to access the curriculum – and indeed good opportunities in life – is based on solid numeracy and literacy skills.

2. Continuous improvement and a lack of complacency.

Maths teaching in the majority of the Province’s primaries is very good. The overall effectiveness of NI primary schools remains high at approximately 80 per cent, according to the most recent chief inspector’s report.

But even high performing schools know that there are always areas they need to work on. We benefit from a very collaborative environment. Schools are happy to ask others for support and this encourages everyone to push for improving core standards.

3. Focus on early intervention.

The approach in many NI schools is based on prevention rather than cure. At our school, we have invested in smaller classes in P1, P2 and P3 so rather than having two classes of 30, we have three classes of around 20, and we have a well-trained teaching assistant in each P1 and P2 classroom.

Teaching assistants play a critical role in school improvement. While it is an additional cost, it saves money in the long run as we reduce the costs of remediation.

4. Smart use of data.

Assessment data is part of everyday language in Northern Ireland. The vast majority of schools use high quality standardised maths assessments every year, and they use them diagnostically to inform the teaching and learning process rather than to give them a number to add to a spreadsheet.

In our school, we set our upper primary children by their maths ability and our data enables us to identify which aspects our pupils find challenging. The areas of challenge often vary between ability set.

Understanding this means that we can create strategies and resources to address specific needs, and having a national comparison is also vital to ensure we keep our progress on track. Different schools are all at different stages with their use of data, but we are all on the same journey.

5. Many of our most able students become teachers.

Given Sir Michael Wilshaw’s warning yesterday that one in 10 teachers in England left the profession, there is a final point to make about the importance of a highly trained and supported workforce.

Northern Ireland has traditionally placed a high value on education and many of our most able students progress into teaching careers. This enables schools to facilitate a consistent drive for improvement which goes hand in hand with all of the above.

Garry Matthewson is the principal of Holy Family Primary and Nursery School in Derry.

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