I’ve been writing recently about the lack of ‘mathitude’ and mathematical approaches to study. The over reliance on squeezing the system to make it spin faster, without really looking under the hood at the fundamental way we support students. I am concerned that schools turn to ‘intervention’ as the solution to student progression. My issue is twofold.  First, this intervention is all too often heavily adult directed. This reinforces the adult – child dynamic in the students and is expensive for the return. Secondly, we identify the children in need of intervention based on external factors, assessments of levels or progress against level or expected GCSE grade. We then treat those symptoms, but seldom tackle those real underlying ‘approaches to learning’ issues.

Both of these uses for intervention move further away from students who can support their own learning, set their own targets and reflectively engage in their own learning progress and students who can understand and use feedback. It fosters an adult dependent culture in those students and moves away from a collaborative, peer tutoring and feedback approach.

I heard about a school where teaching staff had designed an approach to learning that staff felt was right for their pupils. An approach that focussed on mastery of learning skills, and one that was showing impact on the hard data measures of attendance and behaviour. Once I had brushed off my teacher scepticism, I asked if I could go and see what was going on. I set off for Great Torrington School  in Devon to see for myself, and spoke to Adrian Farmer @adey79 and John Stanier @JohnStanier1 about the approach that is now in the second year.


We noticed, as a school that we were putting in so much effort to raise attainment at KS4. We had lots of catch up groups, and while our pupils were getting through and we were improving, we wanted to do more than get them through the exams. They were becoming reliant on spoon-feeding. We also saw a lot of crossovers in topics, like isometric in maths and DT, and scale in Geography and DT, and pupils were getting these in each subject. It was not getting embedded and it was being taught in slightly different ways. You’ve got all these things going on and it’s no wonder some pupils are not getting it embedded.

So we took out a large group of staff for two full days and in that time identified the key issues that we needed to address and the fundamental values and skills we felt our students needed.  So we pulled apart the learning and thinking skills, opening minds, a whole range of curriculum models, as well as from other countries, and none of it really fitted. It was a bit woolly for how we were going to assess our learners in our school. We were also looking at breaking down the barriers to the subjects. This had a mixed reaction with staff, but as we started look at what the pupils could do to cover the learning objectives, we started to see the opportunities.

Out of that day we developed our 6 key learning skills.

Accomplished, independent, reflective, creative, literate and scientific.

About a month later in the year we had another day where we asked staff:

”In your dream school, what would you like to deliver that would really excite the pupils?”

And out of that we got 20 challenges; these were whittled down to 6 that we now use with year 7, and now we have the second group going through. Each group does one challenge for half a term and then they move on. We assess students against the mastery of our learning skills, not against subject levels, and pupils set and monitor their own targets. We work with their parents and carers with information about the challenge and how they can help pupils at home.

We capped the class at 24 and did lots of work with parents, showing them what the challenge would look like. It was a big step for the school, but these children were coming out of primary school and had 3 teachers with lessons that were 3 or 4 hours long. Some lasted all day. Just think how deep can you immerse in their learning in a day?

So that was all well and good, but it sounded a bit like a pyramid scheme, too good to be true. I went to see what was going on for myself. I sat in on some sessions. I saw a fantastic installation based on Frankenstein and the monster within. I watched students working independently with minimum adult input, in their groups. I talked to staff who were spending most of their time giving feedback and individual guidance. I looked at attendance data and progress data and it’s not candyfloss. It’s really good. I read their OFSTED report. Just like ‘mathitude’, the proof is manifest the following year. Last year in year 7 attendance was up by a percentage point on the previous year. Consequence points were down by 20%, rewards are up by 37% and there were no detentions at all last year in year 7. Staff who are teaching these students for the first time in year 8 are seeing students with more secure skills for acquiring knowledge. Staff teaching in year 7 want to do it again.

There was a group of pupils in year 8 on a read-write programme, who did the challenge curriculum last year and were outside of their classroom. When the teacher went to see what they were doing outside the classroom, one pupil said that they were waiting for a cover teacher to arrive. One of the boys said…

“We know what project we are doing and we know where our books are. So if you could open the door, one of us will go and get the work, then we can get the books and we can get on with it while we wait.”

I was told that was not unusual.