Creating a ‘positive, thriving’ maths environment: an interview with Debbie Lee

|9 min read

The school’s latest Ofsted report identified the maths programme as “much stronger than it was at the previous inspection.”

Debbie Lee and Maths — No Problem! arrived at Overchurch Junior School at around the same time, in September 2020. Prior to her arrival, the school was struggling to raise standards in maths and to ensure consistency and coverage across the year groups.

Debbie, now Maths Lead and Head of Year 4 at the Wirral, UK-based school, says, “we were a school requiring improvement.” Their National Leader of Education suggested that Overchurch should invest in Maths — No Problem! as part of an improvement plan.

It fell to her to implement the programme, and she hasn’t looked back. Overchurch has moved from “being in need of improvement in maths to a positive, thriving maths environment,” she says. “And Maths — No Problem! has been part of that journey.”

For Overchurch, a Year 3 to Year 6 school with about 350 pupils, there’s still work to be done, but the latest Ofsted report identified the maths teaching and achievement as “much stronger than it was at the previous inspection.”

Debbie didn’t choose Maths — No Problem! but says “I would have chosen it, now that I have experienced the program and seen the positive impact, I would definitely choose it again!”

“I think of myself as a ‘mathsy’ individual, I have always loved maths. I really like Maths — No Problem! I love the push and the twists and the way it mixes across concepts challenging and expanding understanding,” she says.

In addition to using the new edition of the Primary Series, Overchurch is a pilot school for Insights, the online assessment tool from Maths — No Problem!

Making Maths — No Problem! their own

Maths — No Problem! “makes the children think and it constantly refers back to concepts that have already been taught,” says Debbie, referring to the carefully designed spiral curriculum and the way it ‘scaffolds’ key concepts.

Debbie has structured her maths programme to address the particular challenges of the school. “We felt that our children were struggling with fluency in arithmetic.”

So, every morning, Debbie spends the first 15 minutes of the 75-minute maths lesson on arithmetic exercises that she designs for her year group.  She leads her class through explicit arithmetic that’s based on the Maths — No Problem! content they’re about to study and the previous lesson, so in effect she’s ‘pre-teaching’ and consolidating previous content.

Debbie also uses trends and misconceptions highlighted by the Insights data to tailor the arithmetic sessions, which usually consist of 15 to 20 questions. The children act as ‘teachers,’ explaining the methods they have used and sharing any top tips with their peers. This initiative has been implemented across the school with excellent results.

“Ofsted were really happy with the adaptations we had made and the maths environment at Overchurch. We've very much made Maths — No Problem! ours.”

Formative assessment number system

In their journals, pupils write about the Explore task and complete the Guided Practice. Debbie asks the children to use a purple pen to self mark their work and to write a number between 1 and 4 to indicate how well they understand the lesson so far. She aims for most children to give themselves a 2, which means they are working at age-related expectations (ARE) and understand the Explore task and Guided Practice. Putting a 3 or 4 would mean that they hadn’t quite grasped the initial input.

“Most children will put a 2, because at that moment in time, with support and scaffolding, for the Explore task and Guided Practice, they all feel they’re okay. Later in the lesson they do the Independent Task, and at the end of that they self mark.” For that, Debbie sets up a couple of marking stations with an ipad and a completed workbook.

“I see each pupil once they have marked and corrected the workbook task and most children will be a 2, which is working at ARE. If I feel after discussion a 3 or 4 should be awarded, then I would either do an immediate verbal intervention or set up an extra short intervention during the quiet reading session in the afternoon,” she says. “That’s our  formative assessment that’s happening every day. It’s all happening in real time.”

Experiencing what the children are going to feel

Debbie gets all of her teachers to explore the Maths — No Problem! lessons ahead of time, as if they’re pupils themselves, “so they are experiencing what the children are going to feel.”

“This is why I like the teachers to have a workbook each, so that they can populate their workbook, then they absolutely know what's coming. My theory is as long as you work through the questions as a pupil would, you realise where any issues or misconceptions are that you might want to alert the children to.”

There are children at her school “who thought they didn't like maths, who now really love maths,” says Debbie.

There is a “much more positive mindset across staff now,” she says, and teachers are learning to ask questions and promote maths vocabulary. The teachers are learning how to make the scheme work for them, and working hard to put themselves into the children's shoes. “You only have to be one step ahead, but you do need to have done the Guided Practice and Workbook!”

‘Our arithmetic is very strong now across the school’

In a typical year, Debbie would do the baseline assessment at the start of the year as well as looking back at the previous year's Insights data. She would look in detail at each child and assess any areas of weakness or trends across her class or the year group.

Debbie would do the first Textbook A Insights assessment around February half-term on completion of the Textbook A and look again at the data in detail.

The Year 6 classes use Insights primarily as a diagnostic tool to work out any pupils’ misconceptions or trends across classes in a particular topic, such as fractions, multiplication or division in preparation for the national tests in May.

When the assessments for Year 4 are completed, Debbie drills down into her class data and creates interventions on some “big topic areas” that need support. She also uses whatever gaps or misconceptions are identified through Insights data to craft her morning arithmetic sessions. “I would constantly target the areas or concepts flagged in the Insights data. That’s a constant intervention happening in real time. Our arithmetic is strong across the school now.”

Debbie does all of the marking online for her class in the Insights system herself. She prefers to do it that way because “you get a feel when you're marking, as well as looking at the diagnostics, you can see any questions that have been an issue for your class. Insights allows you to drill down to which type or style of questions need extra input. I would constantly target these concepts in my daily arithmetic session.”

‘I love it. I think it’s amazing!’

Debbie is a huge fan of Insights. “I love it. I think it's amazing. There's nothing like it!”

Debbie says they’ve never had an online maths assessment tool that allows them to create graphs for governors or that allows them to filter across different groups so effectively, for example, SEND or Pupil Premium.

Debbie also easily prepares reports for the Senior Leadership Team. She presents Insights data for Years 3, 4, 5 and 6 as well as looking at SATs results.

“Insights really gives us an indication of how close to ‘working at’ the children are ahead of the national tests. It gives us accurate, in-the-moment data allowing us to target those who need extra intervention.”

Debbie says she has been unable to find anything else on the market that lets her mark papers live, then do in-depth analysis for individual pupils, a class, a year group and the whole school at the click of a button. This is invaluable to the class teachers and for Debbie as Head of Year and Maths Lead.

Insights ‘gives us hard data, and I love data’

One of things she appreciates most about Insights is the level of precision and rigour it provides. “It gives us hard data and I love data.”

Data is so valuable because “you can really see the impact of what you’re doing.”

If anyone asks about the implementation of Maths — No Problem! and Insights, she is eager to discuss the tool’s impact. “I say ‘just have a look at how we have implemented it at our school, how confident these children are at maths and how much progress we have made.”

Workshops are planned to demonstrate Insights, the textbooks and workbooks to parents, and Debbie also puts the schemes of work on the website so parents can see what’s happening. “We plan to have the children showing their parents how our maths lessons work at the workshops; the children are keen to share how much they are enjoying maths,’’ she says.

Making maths exciting

Debbie says Overchurch Junior School is working on a “real love of maths approach,” as well as promoting mastery across the school, both for the staff and for the children. They do termly Maths Day to raise the profile of maths. “We try to make maths exciting. The aim of the Maths Day is to make maths fun.”

Finally, the teachers also create challenge areas around the classrooms to further develop mastery; these colourful and varied challenges — based on problems from the Mathsteasers books, Insights tests and content from the textbooks and workbooks — are dotted around the classrooms and make a useful addition to the Maths — No Problem! Programme for pupils who finish quickly and for those working at greater depth.

“We are always working to promote a positive approach to maths,” says Debbie.