30 April 2016

Talking Points

I've been talking about three things on Twitter this week: study leave, calculators and contact time. I need more than 140 characters! All opinions are welcome, either through Twitter or in the comments below.

Study Leave
At my previous school all Year 11 and Year 13 students would disappear in early May, returning to school only to sit their exams. It was a girls' grammar school - the students were hard working, driven and independent. They made good use of their study leave, and the teachers made good use of gained time for projects such scheme of work development. I now work at a boys' comprehensive where students are expected to attend school throughout the whole exam period. This 'no study leave' approach is fairly common. I think it raises really interesting questions about how schools can best support students preparing for public exams. What do you think? What's best for students - studying at home or at school?

My school does Linked Pair GCSE and my Year 11s have one of their four maths GCSE exams in the afternoon, which is unusual. Three hours of maths revision at school has been scheduled for the morning of that exam. I'm worried that this will exhaust my students, perhaps to the detriment of their exam performance. Five hours of maths in one day doesn't sound like a smart idea.
I'd rather they stay at home, but it's not up to me. I will do my best to create a relaxing and encouraging environment at school. We'll do a little bit of maths, but certainly not three hours of intense last minute revision. What would you do?

Thanks to all who offered ideas on Twitter - let's hope it's a nice day so I can take them outside in the sunshine!

Last Sunday I attended the absolutely brilliant 'Maths in the Sticks' CPD event for A level teachers, organised by Stuart Price. I've already shared my initial views on the changes to A level, but in that post I deliberately didn't mention calculators because I haven't made up my mind about them yet.

I'm not a luddite, I'm not anti-technology, but I'm afraid I don't get excited about calculators like some people do. I still use the same calculator that I used at school and university.

I like the fact that C1 is currently non-calculator and I will miss this element of A level. I'm also quite fond of statistical tables. I accept that statistical tables will eventually go the way of log tables and slide rules, but I do feel a bit sad about it.
I used to tutor a private school girl who was struggling with A level maths. One day she showed me a snazzy new calculator that she'd been sold at school. Although she didn't understand the maths involved, she was very good at using the calculator. Clearly her teacher had spent a lot of time in lessons going through the instructions. I was surprised that this calculator was allowed in exams because it seemed to give her an unfair advantage over students who couldn't afford an expensive calculator.

You could argue that learning how to use this kind of technology is a useful skill, but I'm not convinced it's as important as people make out. I suspect that these skills will be forgotten within weeks of the end Year 13. Plus technology quickly becomes outdated anyway.
So forgive me for not welcoming the 'use of technology' aspects of the new A level with open arms. I'm already bored by it. There are also practicalities to consider. And don't even get me started on 'large data sets'...

Contact Time
Finally, thanks to everyone who replied to this tweet:
It was fascinating to see how much variation there is between schools.

As expected, it seems that larger schools are more likely to have a number of TLRs in the maths department. But this is not always the case - in some large schools the Head of Maths has to do (or delegate) everything (which is a lot!).

Answers regarding contact time were inconsistent, ranging from no extra time allocated to four hours per week. It seems that most Key Stage Coordinators are allocated between 1 and 3 extra non-contact periods a fortnight.

The job description of a Key Stage Coordinator also varies a lot - roles may involve running help clubs and interventions, preparing assessments, undertaking lesson observations and performance management, analysing data, processing exam entries, developing schemes of work, organising competitions plus a plethora of other duties.

Key Stage Coordinator roles are a good stepping stone to Head of Maths, so certainly worth having a go at. I used to be a Key Stage 5 Coordinator and really enjoyed it. I'm not sure I'd do it if I wasn't allocated any extra time though.

Opinions are most welcome!

Please do let me know your thoughts.


  1. I think having expensive calculators only gives an advantage until the exam boards catch up and set questions that test the understanding of the concept. In C3 the Qs now involve transforming an anonymous graph rather than 'draw |x^3+x^2-4|. That being said you can still check that you have all solutions to a trig equation by drawing the graph...

    1. Perhaps this is why she ended up with a low grade in her A level - her teacher focused on calculator skills over understanding and this didn't pay off in the exam.

  2. On the point about study leave, at my international school there are 2 weeks of exams for all students at the end of the year with study leave! This happens after public exams are over. Year 7 students get study leave. A very strange concept which has ta ken time to get used to. I think it depends immensely on the type of school, and the students. If they will use time productively, study leave can be invaluable, and forcing good students to revise subjects they don't need to can be counter productive.

    On use of calculators, we do IGCSE and IB, and students have to have an expensive graphically calculator for both. I feel as you do that students come to rely on the tech, and never develop the full understanding because of this.

    1. I've not heard of Year 7s getting study leave before - good idea for building independent study skills.

  3. I find running revision sessions difficult as revision is a personalised thing so hated having to put on maths revision sessions at my old school during the exam period. It also takes away their independence when the expectation is that you do the revision for them. Students think that they have done an hour of maths revision when sitting passively in a timetabled session. My current school (also a grammar) is letting Y11 leave on Thursday 12th May

    1. Very good point about sitting passively in a timetabled lesson...

  4. Our Y11s go on study leave at half term. There are revision sessions put on for every subject for half a day each. All students are expected to be at every session. Personally, I think we do too much for our students. We have intervention sessions in lunchtime and after school and reports which are given 4 times a year are colour coded so that students know they are "on intervention" for that subject. I don't think we foster independence in our students.

    1. I think there's a really important argument here about fostering independence. There's lots of hand-holding, and for some students that's necessary. Perhaps it's undesirable for those going onto university though

  5. Jo, I have to say I find the comments about "snazzy new" calculator when you're referring to the Ti-82 almost laughable. Almost as bad as "until the exam boards catch up".

    The Ti-82 was launched in 1993, it's hardly "new" and, as far as I can tell was allowed in A levels pretty at launch though some boards stopped allowing graphing calculators for some old style modular (P1/P2, etc.) A levels . I've even taught a kid at GCSE who was using her dad's old Ti-82 that he'd had for A level.

    Certainly they've been allowed ever since the re-write to C1/C2 style so that's over a decade for for exam boards to "catch up".

    And "expensive"? For most at GCSE, yes, but at A level? There aren't all that many kids doing A level maths at most schools and parents who can provide iPhone 6s, a Ps4 and a laptop for their 17 year olds can afford £100 for a modern (i.e. not the Ti-82) graphing calculator. The PTA can fund buying half a dozen to loan out.

    1. Thanks for your comment - presumably this is 'SirAlsDad' from Twitter. I know you're a big fan of calculators. I'm guessing you teach at private school because you seem out of touch with reality. I have absolutely no interest in how long that calculator has been around, the fact is that normal students don't have it and shouldn't need it. Because of your love of calculators, you've missed the point.

    2. Hi Jo,

      While I currently teach at an independent (which, as a commercial organisation doesn't spend a penny it doesn't have to so there are no calculators to lend to anyone except those rescued from lost property - was that the "reality" I'm out of touch with?), every state school I've taught at, including while on supply, has had a drawer full of graphical calculators, mostly without batteries but sometimes with data logging kit and even thermal plotters. Most were probably used to show off how advanced the school was in the 1990s and have been sat there ever since and have watched at least three sets of staff come and go without ever being turned on.

    3. And Jo, I'm not sure what the point you were making actually was. And while I have a reasonable calculator collection, it's dwarfed by my textbook collection and I don't love them (I just say that to get them into bed).

      IMV, I think too much is being read into the "expectation that graphing calculators will be used during teaching" (not exact wording, I can't lay hands on the Ofqual spec easily). I'd have thought most schools used tools like Geogebra/AutoGraph to illustrate algebraic ideas in A level, GCSE and probably KS3 so graphing calculators are a bit Old Hat really.

      Though as they are allowed in exams and Geogebra, etc. isn't perhaps they should be gotten out of the back of the cupboard a little more..?

      I do certainly see shifting statistics away from tables (though apparently tables will still be available) and to electronics as positive though. We stopped using trig tables in the 1970s - as soon as scientific calculators became available - and there's no good reason why stats tables have persisted. You don't learn any more about Normal Distribution from using tables than you learned trig by looking up logs of sines from tables and no one outside schools uses tables ('proper' statistics are all done by computer - most of the time in Excel..)

      And Large Data Sets.. Well, I think that was a ambitious idea but it seems to have been impossible to meet that ambition. I rather liked the aspiration - the statistics we do for GCSE and A level uses trivial data sets (because they have to be processed in the very limited time for a question) and much of the power of statistics only really shows itself when the set is large. In the end though, it looks like this was too big an ask for an exam format and what appears to be emerging seems not to have been a great leap after all.

  6. On the Study Leave issue..

    My current school, like your old one, has study leave from when AS exams start. Most local schools, however, seem to have a system of "you must keep going to the classes until you've completed the exams for that subject" (Given when Further Maths exams are this year, that's not a great concession...)

    I've understood there are two reasons for the lack of study leave. At GCSE, there are certainly a lot of kids who don't have the maturity to do any kind of studying if given leave and there are a handful whose home situation wouldn't be conducive to study either. At AS/A level this is not as significant but I believe there's an element of not allowing 6th form study leave to reduce dissent with year 11s.

    But I think the biggest reason is attendance statistics. Isn't it still the case that Study Leave is actually "absence" and is recorded as such? Isn't there still an 85% threshold for absence and keeping the yr11s in for any days they actually turn up (as many will vote with their feet anyway) all helps towards that stat?

    (The real problem for us this year is how long the exam period is. D1 isn't until the 24th June!)

    1. I never thought of that - I wonder if attendance statistics are a factor here.

      Agree that there are some students who won't or can't study at home. I suppose that's the difficulty - some students would do better at home, some would do better at school, but the school has to have a consistent policy for all.

    2. I think our D1 is far earlier than that... Agree, Year 12s taking exams that late presents difficulties.

  7. I always wonder why people post anonymous comments in responses. I believe study leave is a great idea in principle but, if you work in a deprived school many children don't have a suitable home environment to work in and many parents don't appreciate that study leave is study leave. Also, many students need support to facilitate study or revision. At A level I think students are mature enough (hopefully) to choose whether or not to work at home.Regardig calculator, I must confess to being a bit of a luddite. I do think a non calc element should be maintained at A level though.