Designing your maths curriculum part 1: Intent

With thanks to Nick Hart, Deputy Headteacher at Penn Wood Primary School in Slough, for this really interesting article on how to effectively design your maths curriculum.

Designing your maths curriculum part 1: Intent


As we prepare for the new academic year, the importance of the curriculum has come into sharper focus. Ofsted’s National Director of Education has said that schools will need to show they have deliberately designed their curriculum through a process of strategic decision-making.  Leaders will need to know what their curriculum is, why they have made such decisions, how the curriculum is being implemented and the reasons for those choices, and the impact that the curriculum is having on outcomes for children.  This is a significant piece of work for leaders and there are a number of actions that must be taken to ensure that our curricula are sufficiently ambitious and supportive for children to succeed.  Some of those actions are around intent, some around implementation and some around measuring impact.

1. Clarify your intentions

We all know the aims of the maths national curriculum and can recite them when talking about what we want our curricula to achieve but there is a real danger that this is used too simplistically.  It is school leaders’ responsibility to be specific with curriculum design.  Leaders must know the specific issues that children have with maths and design a curriculum that addresses those issues.  For example, if a school has a high prior attaining community, where parents are numerate, there is little disadvantage and many children have outside tuition, the situation could quite easily be that the fluency aspect of the national curriculum should not be as much of a priority.  In this case, robust assessment and intervention should be planned for those children who are not fluent but the curriculum itself should be more heavily weighted towards developing reasoning and problem solving.  Leaders will have identified that the vital prerequisite for reasoning and problem solving is knowledge and because that is generally secure, the curriculum should be set up to address the possible areas of weakness. 
Another example at the other end of the spectrum could be a school in a highly deprived area where children enter with very low attainment.  Leaders may recognise in this setting that basic understanding of number, fluency of factual recall and fluency of mathematical procedures are a significant issue.  If this is the case, then the curriculum should be set up to rapidly address the lack of fluency.  That is not to say that reasoning and problem solving would be neglected, but leaders will understand that fluency is a necessary prerequisite to reasoning and problem solving and justify the decisions that they have made in their curriculum design.  This may take the form of a curriculum plan that adapts termly or even yearly as leaders continue to monitor the impact of the curriculum and make adjustments in light of the assessment data.

2. Explicitly set out the knowledge and understanding that children will acquire

This goes beyond the national curriculum statements and again should reflect the needs of the community.  If, through rigorous monitoring, it is apparent that the Year 1 cohort has significant weaknesses in recalling and applying number bonds to 10 and 20, the Year 2 curriculum should be amended to address this early in the autumn term, with clear expectations and time frames to achieve them.  Leaders will need to quantify an expectation, for example, that all children can recall bonds to 10 by week 3 and bonds to 20 by half term.  As such, the sequences of lessons need to be adapted to improve the chances of the target being achieved and teachers in this case should not be using an off the peg scheme.  This could be perceived as a narrowing of the curriculum because by focusing intensively on basic understanding of number and recall, there is a risk of not being able to cover the remainder of the curriculum.  The alternative risk is that by covering everything without addressing the basic needs systematically, children will understand and retain far less than they would in the first example.  I know which risk I’d rather take. 

At this stage of curriculum design, we’re looking at moving from intent to implementation, translating the aims of our curriculum into a structure and narrative.  This is more than ensuring coverage.  Gone are the days when we could timetable all the objectives into a yearly planner and say that we have full coverage, for it is what children have learned that matters, not what has been taught.

3. Design the sequences of topics

The national curriculum outlines what must be taught but many yearly overviews simply fill a termly calendar with those topics which are often blocked so that, for example, children in year 4 are taught measures once in the year. Bjork’s work on desirable difficulties highlights the importance of spacing topics out, little and often, over a longer period of time to harness the power of forgetting.

Conceptual sequences need thinking about too, such as children needing to be able to multiply and divide by powers of 10 before they can convert measures.  Common misconceptions should also drive curriculum design.  Area and perimeter seem to be taught together whereas I’d suggest that area is taught as part of a unit on multiplication and division and perimeter as part of a unit on addition and subtraction.  And then there is the issue of presenting an operation on its own, which is common.  A unit of work on addition alone will encourage much fewer links to be made than a unit on addition and subtraction where the relationship between whole and parts can be explored and connections made.
In the second part of this blog, we’ll look at the implementation of the maths curriculum and measuring its impact.



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