Tag Archives: Primary schools

Littlehampton Boys’ School, 1871-1911, part 2

This is the second half of the piece about Littlehampton Boys’ School and its Head, Thomas Slatford.   It’s particularly interesting about how the school and its curriculum developed, and also about how he was confident enough to challenge the judgement of Her Majesty’s Inspector.


A Man Secure in His Own Worth

When Slatford took up his post in 1871 being a head-teacher was an uncertain and not particularly attractive business. The majority of schools were village-based, under the effective control of the Rector, and there was no doubt who was the more important. When the Head called upon the Rector s/he’d be expected to use the tradesmen’s entrance and be sneered at by the Rector’s servants. One rural teacher complained in 1879 that he was regarded as “the parson’s fag, squire’s doormat, church scraper, professional singer, sub-curate, land surveyor, drill master, parish clerk, letter writer, librarian, washerwoman’s target, organist, choir master, and youth’s instructor”.

Just as important in a Head’s life would be Her Majesty’s Inspector, and the report on his annual visit to assess both the pupils and the teaching. Many HMI saw themselves as socially and intellectually superior to a mere teacher, and weren’t slow to make this clear.

I’ve not come across any other Head who felt so secure that he didn’t need to worry about either Rector or Inspector. He was acquainted with the Rector since his days as a pupil-teacher, and they’d stayed in contact both while Slatford trained at Culham College and during his first job at Falmouth. It was at the Rev. Rumball’s direct invitation that he came to Littlehampton.

In 1883 at least one Head was so intimidated by the inspection process that she committed suicide, but Slatford’s relations with the Rector, and with the School Board, were so solid that he was prepared to challenge HMI head on. HMI reports had always been good until an unfortunate and, I suspect, unique incident in early 1884. At the end of the visit the inspector’s assistant is hit by a missile from a catapult! Slatford desperately records how agreeable the inspectors are, but the damage is done, and the report says – not surprisingly, that better discipline should be maintained.

Moreover, the inspector has a long memory, and in the next several years discipline is criticised time and again. Eventually, Slatford snaps and he writes some 200 words where the fury still shines through today: “We all feel the sting of having a sore continually probed and we work on through the year like hounds fearing the lash.”

At his prompting, the Board very politely asks the Inspector to indicate “particulars you consider the discipline is defective … if you would make any suggestions for its improvement, for the School Board, as well as the Head Master, are most desirous that all cause of complaint should be removed and the school restored to a thoroughly good state of discipline.”

The Inspector’s reply is lost but the effect is explosive, and he resigns later in the year.   Subsequent inspectors are much more positive, and point out that with four classes in a single undivided room with appalling sonic characteristics the “resonance and din were almost unbearable”. Indeed, before long, HMI are demanding that more suitable premises are found. The demand is repeated, and a later report says tersely “School visited – I hope for the last time in these premises.”

And though he’s always receptive to constructive requests from parents, he gives no ground in more confrontational situations. To a father who criticises his arithmetic teaching he replies that Slatford doesn’t tell the man how to lay bricks and he’s not prepared to accept “impertinent interference”. Another critical father threatens to hit him, saying he’s quite prepared to pay the fine. Slatford doesn’t give an inch and the parent ends up “asking me to be as kind as I could as he had been delicate lately”!


Teachers and Curriculum

For any teacher following the changes in school and curriculum is immensely fascinating. At the start of Slatford’s career teaching focuses totally upon the narrow demands of the Revised Code’s insistence upon reading, writing, and arithmetic – and nothing more. By the time of his death, the range of subjects has been expanded, the leaving age has been raised, and the introduction of a more advanced Standard VII in 1882 meant schools offered a curriculum similar to that in lower secondary years today.

In science alone we learn of an explosion when making hydrogen in 1901, while another teacher suffers burns when experimenting with phosphorus. (I did the same experiment on teaching practice, with much the same result. I recall saying “Please excuse me a moment, my hand seems to be on fire”). Incidentally, by 1910 the inspectors are recommending that there should be fewer demonstrations, with the pupils performing more experiments for themselves.

Slatford was no stick-in-the-mud. He was a member – and I imagine this was rather unusual – of the National Union of Elementary Teachers (the forerunner of the NUT). He welcomes opportunities for outdoor lessons – gardening, drill, and sending the young pupils of Standard I “to go out and map some of the streets around ….

In 1896 he tells a pupil-teacher that his lesson was “too much an ‘instruction’. …. I have asked him to let the children work out more for themselves.” (More than a hundred years later, most of our recent Education ministers have believed there should be a lot more instruction, and that there are far too many children working things out for themselves.)

When the Education Department recommends the application of kindergarten methods with younger children he quickly arranges for his wife to give some lessons to boys in Standard I.   (She was a Head herself and she was far more forthright than him, describing the national curriculum of the time as ‘ridiculous’.)

Subsequently we read of the smallest children having a dolls’ house and other toys, and before long he is convinced of the value of women teachers with his younger pupils – by the time of his death there are three long-term women on the staff and he regards them very highly.

In his first years Slatford at Littlehampton was the sole qualified teacher, and insisted that lessons were conducted according to his thinking and his alone. He is highly critical that his pupil-teacher Raymond Gibbs shows too light a touch with his class, and is furious when another, Horace Boswell, suggests that Standard I boys cannot yet use a ruler accurately. “This, I of course said, was not his business he was here to carry out my wishes not to criticise or express opinions on them. He works hard with the class but is a little too opinionated perhaps.

In fact, both Gibbs and Boswell proved to be outstandingly successful pupil-teachers, the very best in the whole county. Slatford’s record with pupil-teachers is exceptional; they often come back to see him and their pupils are pleased to see them – “their faces so brightened …”.

This isn’t the only entry to show Slatford wanted schooling to be more than the imposition of curriculum tuition upon reluctant pupils. For many of those at school in the second half of the nineteenth century school was something forced upon them, and which they disliked intensely. I was hugely interested to pick up little fragments showing that Slatford tried for something more. He mentions teaching boys to play draughts in the lunch period, and that a pupil-teacher plays with his boys after school.

After 21 years at the school he muses that he tries to make “… a place where the paths of learning are paths of pleasantness too.” One Christmas he goes round school and is impressed by the number of Christmas cards pupils have given their teachers, as “evidence of kindly feeling between them”.

In 1911, the final year of his life, he goes further. A mother says her son is worried about Science “though he is fond of it and very fond of his teacher.” Slatford speaks to the teacher and reports back to the mother “he must make a friend of his teacher and that we want children to ask questions.”

I was reminded of what the educationalist H C Dent, wrote – and it was teachers like Slatford he was talking about – “Some teachers even dared to think that they and their pupils should be friends, not foes, should work with, not against, each other; and they initiated the most profoundly important transformation of the English elementary school, from a place of hatred to one of happiness.”






Littlehampton Boys’ School, 1871-1911, part 1

Here’s the latest in my Schools History research. I’ve spent much of the summer immersed in a 400-page volume of the Logbooks of Littlehampton Elementary Boys’ School from 1871-1911. There’s lots to say, so I’ve put it into two parts. They’re still longer than I’d like, but I hope you’ll find them interesting.

Setting the Scene

School logbooks all date from a government requirement of the 1860s. In fact, they’re by no means rare, and in many cases it’s possible to study them without access to the originals. Several are available as CD-ROMs, and many more in digitised archives; this is one of a small number which have been transcribed and put into book form.

Most of the logbooks I’ve seen come from village schools, the vast majority being under the close supervision of the Rector. Littlehampton Elementary Boys’ School is very different; after the first few years it’s administered by an elected Board. Littlehampton is a town of streets and alleys, with sports clubs and organisations like the boys’ brigade. In country schools boys bring mice from the fields and celebrate May Day with dancing; in Littlehampton there’s a train service to London, and shop-keepers sell nine-year-olds cigarettes or lead shot for their catapults.

Perhaps uniquely, this forty-year logbook is kept by a single person, Thomas Slatford, from the time of his arrival at the age of 23 until his death forty years later. This gives us a consistent narrative and an in-depth picture of the growth of a school over a period of enormous change.

Best of all, Slatford breaks the rules on almost every page. The instructions require that he make “the briefest entry which will suffice” to record routine matters, and that “No reflections or opinions of a general character are to be entered in the Log Book”.   In practice plenty of Heads found it beneficial to use the log to vent frustrations, but few went as far as complaining that too many mothers spend their time reading “cheap literature if it deserves such a name”, or recording imputations that boys are being bribed with drink and tobacco – by the church authorities no less – to miss school to sing in the church choir.

Slatford lived in a time of dramatic change. At the start of the nineteenth century Littlehampton was a was a fishing village with a population of just a few hundred, but with the coming of the railway it rapidly grew into a popular seaside resort; indeed, access was so convenient that one of the pupil-teachers at the school could cycle the 65 miles to London. By 1911 the population had grown to some 8000.

Holidaymakers brought great economic benefits to the town, but these came at a cost. Many children ceased attending school in the season to assist parents and employers catering for vast numbers of visitors.   Attendance was further hit as visiting attractions – circuses, waxworks, fairs – arrived in town on an almost weekly basis. And there was also considerable deprivation, and unemployment in the winter months, contributing a regular outflow as families emigrated to Canada, the USA, and Australia.

The school perfectly reflected this era of change. In 1871 Slatford was the sole teacher of some 70 boys and his only assistants were older pupils. By 1911 he had moved the school into new and purpose-built premises and he could call upon half a dozen qualified assistant staff to teach more than 300 boys.


Head teachers had a daunting workload. In smaller schools like Littlehampton in 1871 – s/he would be the only teacher, assisted by one or two pupil-teachers – older pupils who were undergoing an apprenticeship. However committed they were, they were still teenagers learning on the job – and that learning included 90 minutes training and tuition every day, which of course added hugely to the Head’s load.

Even with pupil-teacher help the Head still taught full-time, often taking double or triple classes, and examining every class several times a year to check on their progress. On top of all that, s/he was the only point of contact for every administrative matter – ordering stock, building maintenance, bookkeeping, liaising with parents and visitors, checking on absence and illness….

Here’s a single entry from 1893 (notice the final sting in the tail!): “George James Smart’s sister brought him up and said he had truanted yesterday afternoon. Carpenter (St. I) has been stealing figs from the Manor House garden. Punished him. The Vicar came to tell me that Ellis’s mother could not attend to them. Walter’s father (St. I) has deserted them and so they have gone to a relative at Brighton. Mr Matthews away Tuesday and Friday at Sheffield Park. Collard’s family has small pox. Sent Alfred Muschin (St. I) home, he has a ring worm the sister in the Infant School has been home some time for the same reason. Strudwick (St. II) has gone to Arundel where his father is at work on the Castle. Received notice that Inspection is June 20.


A Humane Man?

There are many indications of Slatford’s fundamentally humane nature. There is a wealth of feeling behind “it is sad to see some of the little faces so pinched. There is so much want and distress.”

Frequently he promises anxious parents he’ll keep an eye on their son, and he tries to help those who are particularly deprived. “I suppose he has the worst man in the place for a father, an utterly immoral man and a wife-beater. So I have tried to make it as pleasant as I can for the boy but I am afraid he is an incorrigible truant.”

Most obviously, he often prefers to avoid using corporal punishment in favour of talking to the pupil in depth, giving them a second chance, or requiring children to stay behind to catch up on incomplete work. Moreover, he insists that no-one else on his staff may strike a pupil and reprimands those who do – indeed, such teachers often leave soon afterwards.

Nevertheless, keeping discipline was a central feature of Slatford’s work, and he was perfectly prepared to use the cane when he felt it necessary, even when on occasion he recognised it might do no good. As the school expanded, both in pupil numbers and their age (the leaving age was raised twice in the 1890s) the accounts of misbehaviour increase.   Truancy (often encouraged by parents and employers), pilfering, stone-throwing and bullying occurred throughout his time, but smoking (“It is disgraceful that children so young should be served with such things. Three for a halfpenny!”), obscenity in the toilets, and the writing of “horrid filth” on paper occur more and more. Even in the last year of his life, however, he is prepared to give a second chance: “The boy turned so ghastly that I did not punish him.”

But his humanity is not the same as ours, and much is horrifying to us. He doesn’t just cane pupils, but records it as ‘flogging’ or ‘whipping’. He doesn’t hesitate to involve the police, and on one occasion ties a boy to a desk until the policeman arrives. On another, he locks two brothers in the cellar.

Illness and even death occur time and time again. It was rather rare for a year not to be marked by the death of pupils, and on one awful occasion he is called to the infants’ school to find their teacher dying.   On two occasions – the deaths of his wife and young son – his own family suffers, but his grief is mentioned only briefly, and we never hear anything of his domestic and family life.

He’s more forthcoming about one or two bees in his bonnet – he had a prejudice against cross-eyed boys (“dishonest and untruthful”), and tended to see the railway in a bleakly negative light. He also complained about women being obsessed with soap-opera reading (though this is an indication of a dramatic improvement in literacy, given that in the middle of the century 50% of the population needed to sign with their mark),


(continued in part 2)



“… Tables Not Well Known”

This is another posting from my history of schools findings.

For more than 150 years there’s been one yardstick that’s been used to give a quick judgment by all and sundry about mathematics learning – “Do they know their tables?”  And you’ve only got to look at school logbooks or HMI reports to realise that in spite of 150 years of teachers’ efforts the answer has invariably been “No”.

logbook (5a)


Long after many countries had universal elementary education England was known for having perhaps the worst schools in Europe. No-one had much interest in schooling; there had been too many revolutions in Europe for the landed gentry to want the population to become educated, and parents and employers were keen to have children – even those as young as six or seven – working for a living.

Consequently, it wasn’t until 1832 that the Government made the first tentative grant, putting £20 000 towards the building of elementary schools. Of course, the £20 000 covered the country as a whole, but a new school might cost only £60 or so, so it was a useful start. A few years later a system allowing promising pupils to train in their schools was developed, followed by the emergence of training colleges. At last elementary education in England had taken off, and growth and momentum were rapid – I found a reference as soon as 1850 to a teachers’ magazine which encouraged teachers “to make the learning of tables interesting, instead of mere mechanical routine”.

But within a few years the Government found to its horror that the £20 000 grant had grown to nearly a million pounds every year. As governments invariably do in such cases, it set up a committee, and in 1862 the draconian Revised Code was introduced. The Code soon became known as Payment By Results, for schools would only receive a grant for those children who met nationally decreed standards of attainment and attendance.

Anyone who’s been involved in education in recent times will have little difficulty in believing what happened next. Children were tested annually the “Three Rs”, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. Children worked in one of six levels of attainment, known as Standards.   Not surprisingly, the examination became the focal point of the school year. The Head’s job security depended upon the results, so the curriculum narrowed down to the three Rs and little else, with children spending the preceding weeks or even months doing nothing but practise for the examination. I found that one school even postponed the Christmas and New Year holidays until after the Inspector’s visit!

In the run-up to the tests even Scripture lessons might be abandoned, a serious matter given how important the church, and in particular the Rector, was to most schools. For example, a week before the inspection in 1865 one Head recorded in her logbook “Instead of having Scripture Lessons children questioned on the Multiplication Table”.

The examination was carried out via a visit from one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors. Most HMI were appointed for their Church connections, usually with a university background; they’d see themselves having considerably higher social standing than a mere teacher and often they might have little understanding of children. So both teacher and children might dread the annual visit; at least one Head was so terrified by a coming inspection that she drowned herself.

The actual arithmetic syllabus could hardly have been more narrow. In Standard I, for the youngest children, the requirement was “Form on blackboard or slate, from dictation, figures up to 20. Name at sight figures up to 20. Add and subtract figures up to 10, orally, from examples on blackboard”.

Standard II required “A sum in simple addition or subtraction and the multiplication table”, and Standard III “A sum in any simple rule as far as short division (inclusive)”. For most, schooling would finish well before they reached higher Standards.

School logbooks make it clear that such a limited syllabus and so much at stake meant teachers gave the highest priority to the learning of tables. We see teachers devising the same techniques we use today – “Find the plan of getting St II to learn their Multiplication Tables at home answers well.” And “Encouraged children to get table books of their own, bring them to school and say tables from them.” Those who like to use rock or rap versions of tables are following the example of the Devon teacher of 150 years ago who encouraged her children to sing their tables from 2.30 to 3pm.

Teachers recognised the benefits of a little and often approach: “Find the II St know much of their Multiplication Table, as I devote a short time on Tuesdays and Fridays to hearing it having been learnt at home”.   They seized every opportunity for a little practice, even when lining up: “Examined the children in the Multiplication Table while at the line”. I even found a Head who devised the Buddy approach used in my own school, observing, as we too find, its value to both parties: “On Thursday adopted a fresh plan for teaching Arithmetic. For about twenty minutes gave everyone on the three upper classes a child from the lower classes to teach …. Found it beneficial to both the elder and the younger ones.

It’s frequently asserted that children used to know their tables perfectly, but it’s clear that this common belief simply isn’t true. Virtually every logbook finds Heads bemoaning their pupils’ inadequate knowledge. One Head writes in three successive months he finds it necessary to keep one class in for not learning their tables. Next year’s equivalent class is just as unsuccessful, and the year after that he finds himself keeping them behind not occasionally but every day for a week. (Declining standards, no doubt!) And this is no ogre, but a Head who joins the children at play, and enjoys snowball fights and playing cricket with them. Children bring him flowers, and worry when he’s ill. He’s constantly looking to find better ways to teach; he’s ambivalent about using the cane, but is forced to admit that other punishments don’t always work – “Find that threatening children with an extra ½ hr at school is no punishment for some say they would like staying.”

It was the Payment By Results code that required schools to keep a logbook, so logbooks aren’t actually all that rare. Some have been transcribed and others put onto CD ROM, so they can be both convenient and inexpensive to study. Much of what you read comes across as truly historical – children unable to attend because they have no boots, or absenting themselves at harvest time because they’re working in the fields. There are enormous class sizes – in one case 104 children in a room so small they had to take turns to sit down. Illness and epidemics are frequent and pupil funerals are tragically by no means unusual – one terrible story featured a family who lost each of their five children in a measles outbreak.

In other ways you find yourself thinking that things haven’t changed a bit – demanding pupils “Oliver G cannot be left a minute without his getting into mischief …”, daunting workloads and endless paperwork, publishers offering workcards and schemes promising to meet syllabus requirements, and – of course – the never-ending struggle to master the multiplication tables.



Plus Ça Change

These extracts are taken from “A Social History of Education in England” by John Lawson and Harold Silver.   The authors are writing about the “Payment By Results” system introduced in 1862. Grants to schools were determined by the proficiency of children from six years old as tested individually by the inspectors.


“…. As T H Huxley later put it: ‘the Revised Code did not compel any schoolmaster to leave off teaching anything; but, by the very simple process of refusing to pay for many kinds of teaching, it has practically put an end to them.’ Matthew Arnold, poet and HMI, was the inspector most responsive to the effects of the code. Under the old system a good inspector heard selected children read and questioned whole classes on all their subjects: ‘the whole life and power of a class, the fitness of its composition, its handling by the teacher, were well tested.’   Under the new system, however, he was unable to test any of these: ‘he hears every child in the group before him read, and so far his examination is more complete than the old inspection.   But he does not question them; he does not … go beyond the three matters, reading, writing, and arithmetic.’

“The result was generally an increase in rote learning, and even inspectors not opposed to the principle of the revised code reported on its deadening and disheartening effects.   The need to drill the children to meet the inspection requirements was reflected in the schools’ activities throughout the year. Frequent testing became common. Some of the improvements of the 1850s in curriculum and method in many schools were cut short. Even religious instruction was sometimes dropped as the inspection approached.

“…. The possibility of new thinking about educational methods and about the curriculum became paralysed by the operation of the code.

“…. Payment by results was a view of the nature of elementary education from which it took the system generations to recover. Edward Thring looked back at the experience of payment by results and the inspection of minds like ‘specimens on a board with a pin stuck through them like beetles’, and appealed to teachers to get rid of the vestiges of the system: ‘strive for liberty to teach, have mercy on the slow, the ignorant, the weak’. A former inspector looked back in 1911 at the thirty or more years of ‘Code despotism’ in which he had been involved, and thought the efforts were still being felt of ‘that deadly system … which seems to have been devised for the express purpose of arresting growth and strangling life, which bound all of us, myself included, with links of iron’.”



The Logbook

I first published this piece two years ago following a chance encounter with a school logbook.  By the end of the week the owners of the logbook had invited me to talk to their history group about the history of mathematics teaching in elementary schools.  Only after agreeing did it sink in that I actually didn’t know very much at all about the subject, and I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to find out.  

It’s become a major interest; I’ve explored texts, archives, reports, lots more logbooks; I’ve picked the brains of everyone I can think of and I seem to have run out of people who know more than I do.  I’ve found out a lot of interesting things along the way, so I plan to make regular postings on the topic.  To start the ball rolling, this is my original piece.


logbook cover

Recently I spent a quite fascinating afternoon looking at an old school logbook.  It wasn’t until the 1870 Education Act that education became universal, and it used to be mandatory for schools to keep a record of events.  The Headteacher would make an entry at least once a week; judging by this particular logbook, dating from the latter years of the nineteenth century, the Head would have a lot of discretion about how this requirement would be met.

logbook (1)

Over a period of thirty years or so the job changed hands a few times, and some incumbents wrote just a single line – sometimes simply “Nothing important happened this week”.

logbook (3a)

Later Heads wrote more, and as the book filled up over the years they would regularly be writing a page or more.

The school was in a village  with a population of 500 or so near Banbury, around halfway between London and Birmingham, and the book covers the period from the mid-1880s to 1906.  Typically, roll numbers were around 75 with an infants class and another class for older children.

It was a rural community and children were often away from school helping with duties like potato-picking and harvesting, and others I’ve never heard of – “leasing”, and “birdminding”.   A consequence of the 1870 Act was that the authorities were pretty strict about attendance, with visits from the attendance officer and the attendance registers being audited frequently.  Later Heads would state the percentage attendance for both classes every week, but even so clearly had the authority to use some discretion (on one occasion the Head decided not to open school on the day Barnum and Bailey’s circus came to town).

It wasn’t just the attendance officer that the Head had to worry about.  He himself taught fulltime and needed to supervise other classes to check on progress; the Rector visited regularly, and the Government Inspector came as well, perhaps once a year.   I was a little surprised to note that often the reports of the Head and the Inspector would often give mathematics (more precisely, arithmetic) a low profile, being subsumed within “Basic” studies. Greater priority might be given, particularly in the Infants, to Handwriting, Singing, Needlework, or Recitation.

logbook (4)

(“…. The knowledge of the elementary subjects is good on the whole, but Arithmetic is weak in the fifth and seventh standards.  Geography is good, History fair, and Needlework is well done.”

Ever since I began teaching we’ve been told that in the olden days every child knew their multiplication tables.   It’s not true!logbook (5a)

(“Standard III want great attention in their arithmetic tables not well known.”)

There’s another widespread belief – that children in the past were impeccably behaved, and that today’s society, and teachers in particular, have allowed standards of behaviour to plummet. The 1890s Head had plenty of non-impeccable pupils. In a school of just 75 or so, half a dozen are named week after week and several others less frequently.  Not all of them were boys – Minnie W seems to have been a real problem, being excluded from class time after time.  Her brother? / cousin? Reginald is pretty well as bad, while Oliver G “can’t be left for a moment without getting into mischief”. One senses a grim smirk on the next page when Oliver falls off a prohibited wall and breaks his leg – but a year later he “is just as bad as before he broke his leg”.

John J was another regular offender, with a particular habit of “molesting the girls on their way to school”.

I was shocked by one incident, when I read that Ernest L and Clement W (another relation to Minnie and Reginald!) attacked their teacher on her way home. I’ve never heard of such an incident, and I hope the teacher was satisfied that sending offenders home and making them apologise dealt adequately with the matter.

logbook (13b)

(“Two boys, Ernest L and Clement W, waylaid their teacher on her way home and stoned her – troublesome boys but the first is an imbecile and dangerous.  The correspondent asked that he might be sent home and the other to apologise.”)

Indeed, and contrary to what one might have expected, corporal punishment seems to have been rare. In 300 pages I found only one direct mention, when John J “an excessively bad boy … at last had a stripe this Friday afternoon”.  From another source I find that boys in their early teens would routinely receive fierce punishment (birching, or hard labour) for stealing items worth just a few pence, so if physical punishment at the school was indeed as rare as it seems then that does indeed surprise me.

No doubt the teachers breathed sighs of relief when Oliver and John and Reginald left school for the last time, probably at the age of 13.  Little did anyone know that several of those happy, carefree, mischievous boys had fewer than fifteen years left to look forward to.  This tiny village of just a few hundred sent 86 men to fight in the Great War, and no fewer than 25 never returned.  Reginald and Clement died on the Somme within a few months of each other; to the unimaginable grief of their parents both lost an elder brother as well.



Snakes and Ladders Revisited


Here’s an account of a hugely enjoyable school visit. By a happy coincidence, just two days later I was at a conference at London Olympia.   A recent President of the Mathematical Association and I were both speaking about mathematical games. In his opening remarks he said Snakes and Ladders was of no interest as it offered no opportunity for decision-making.   Fortunately I had some photographs of my visit with me, and I was able to tell him some of the things we’d done in school and encourage him to reconsider.


For a long time I’d had a large piece of cardboard about 120cm square in our garage. I knew it would come in useful one day, and when I got the opportunity to work with the Y4 class at Hawridge and Cholesbury School I knew just what I was going to do with it. I fetched it indoors and ruled it into six rows and six columns of 20cm squares and took it with me to the school’s “Numbers Day”.

Everyone knows Snakes and Ladders, so everyone was able to tell me that the square at the bottom left would be number 1, and the squares along the bottom row of the board would be numbered from 1 to 6, and in the next row up the numbers 7 to 12 would run from right to left, with the left to right / right to left pattern continuing.

This gave us plenty of chance to explore questions like “Where will 16 be?”, “What number is two squares above 18?”, and “What number is in the third square along in the top row?”

We discussed what similar questions might arise if I’d chosen to use a different number of squares in each row, but this was a brief digression. I’d also taken along some 20cm squares of coloured paper, and I invited the children to complete the board, which I found waiting for me when I returned an hour later. I’d also given some strips of various lengths for the children to make into snakes and ladders.

So the next stage was to position the snakes and the ladders. I’d rather assumed that we might choose to use a short, a medium, and a long ladder, and similarly with snakes. However, the class were adamant they wanted to use all five of each.   For each, they considered and discussed the best placing. Their familiarity with the game ensured that in each case the positioning could be discussed with insight, rather than just slapping the snake / ladder down more or less randomly. Naturally we used blutack to position the snakes and the ladders rather than gluing them into permanent positions.


So we were now pretty well ready to actually try our game out. We agreed we all wanted to use the same simple rules (that you start off the board at position 0, there’s no need to throw a Six to start, and the first to reach or pass square 36 would be the winner).


Their decision to use all the snakes and all the ladders that we’d made, and their positioning of them, was triumphantly vindicated. Their ladder on 16 led to a snake on 22, which in turn sent them to a further ladder at 12, which invariably caused great delight. And the fact that our board had just 36 squares meant that games didn’t drag on – a typical game lasted under five minutes.


But I had one more trick up my sleeve, and this was the one that ensured our game became a high-quality investigative experience. I rolled the die three times, getting throws of 4, 6, and 1. If I use these throws in order I end up on square 5. But what If I can choose the order in which I use these three throws – can I get to 20 or even beyond?

So we now have an activity of almost limitless flexibility. I might give you four throws (say, 2, 3, 5, 5) to explore. Or I can ask you how far you can reach if I let you choose your own set of three throws. And what’s the smallest set of throws that will let you win the game?


And of course, as soon as we reposition any of our snakes and ladders we’ve got a whole new set of situations to explore.







A Productive Conversation With Susie

I was helping out in the class of a friend, and she asked me to have a word with Susie, sitting at the back of the class. It’s a long time ago now, and I can’t begin to recall what the problem was, but I do know our conversation went pretty much like this:


Susie: Can you help me please? I can’t do this one.

Alan: Let’s have a look at it. What’s the problem?

S: I can’t do any of it.

A: OK. Well, how do you think you might start?

S: (Pause, then) Well, I suppose I could ….

A: That seems a good idea.

S: But what do I do next?

A: What do you think you could try?

S: (Pause, then) Well, I might do ….


S: But what then?

A: Well –

S (Pause, then huge, radiant, smile): Oh, I see! It’s OK!   I’ve got it now! Thank you so much!


Now I’d no wish to destroy Susie’s conviction that I’m the greatest maths teacher that ever lived, but I’d not said one insightful word about the problem.  I’d not even needed to look at it – all I’d needed to do was lend an ear and a little encouragement. Any teacher, or any parent, could have done the same.

And the message?   Well, an obvious one is that Susie got far more satisfaction from solving the problem herself than if I’d said “First you do this, then you do that, …”.  But the bigger one for teachers and pupils is that seeing maths as a subject that has to be done at a hundred miles an hour does nobody any favours.  The biggest factor in Susie’s success was being able to think her own way through the question without pressure and in her own time.


It was Denise Gaskins in her blog Let’s Play Math ( http://letsplaymath.net/about/ ) who reminded me about Susie. Denise posted a famous clip of a couple of primary pupils tackling a problem about fractions, and if you’ve got 6½ minutes to spare you can see the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-yichde66s

It’s a very similar message – that by giving the girl and boy the time to tackle the problem (and the resources to do so practically) followed by the opportunity to talk about it at their own pace you get a depth of learning that goes far beyond giving them a batch of mechanical rules.

Here’s what Denise had to say: http://letsplaymath.net/2014/08/13/fractions-15-110-180-1/




A School Visit

I’ve always been heavily involved with the Key Stage 2 Tests.  I’m a senior member of the marking team, I’ve been involved in pre-testing and post-testing, I’ve been a member of the question-writing team, and I think I’m the only civilian ever to lead the evaluation of national pupil performance.  I’m often asked to take trial papers into schools so the authorities can try out questions and whole papers.

At the end of the summer term in 2013 I made one such trial visit to a school which was happy to be involved in the pre-testing.  It was an unforgettable experience and I couldn’t stop thinking about it and talking about the school for days afterwards.  The intake and area seemed unremarkable but everything else was little short of amazing.  The school invariably has terrific results in the Tests, but there was every indication these were gained through high expectations, excellent relationships between and among staff and pupils, and exceptional teaching.

I spent a morning with the Year 6 class.  This was a mixed-ability group – though only in the sense that half the class were at level 5 and the other half at level 6 (if you’re not used to English levels, level 5 corresponds to the highest-rated standard – and level 6 goes beyond that, i.e. exceptional).

After the children had sat the trial test the teacher insisted (unlike the school I visited the following day, where the teacher couldn’t have been less obliging and couldn’t get me out of the door quickly enough)  that I spend the rest of the morning talking with them and giving them feedback and further ideas.  They were brilliant, full of enthusiasm and suggestions of their own, mutually supportive, and highly articulate even though most came from families who’d only arrived in the country in the last generation or two.  When was the last time a primary school pupil said “That’s an example of litotes, isn’t it?” when you were speaking to pupils, and then kindly explained it for you?

It was as near magical an experience as I ever wish to have.  The Head asked me to sign the visitors’ book, and I noticed that a few days before Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools had visited and enjoyed himself just as much as I had.  I don’t blame him for pointing out that here was a school which you might have expected to be unremarkable yet was producing the very highest standards, and doing so not by rote learning and teaching to the test but by a culture of high expectations and mutual support.

It was a wonderful visit and I felt a little guilty I’d been paid for the experience.


A few weeks later I opened the paper and saw the school’s name mentioned.   I assumed I was going to read of its usual performance at the very top of the national rankings.  No, it wasn’t that at all.  The school, or someone within it, had been found guilty of Maladministration – in other words, fiddling the answers (and since I’m usually involved in the reviews and appeals panel I know we do find a few examples of some very dubious behaviour every year).

So the school’s results were cancelled and the school has been removed from the most recent performance tables.  The reputation of the whole school is tarnished and careers are ruined.  Of course, I don’t know what the misdemeanours were.  But what I do know is that I was invited into that school and made welcome by the Head and the Year 6 teacher and class.  Every moment of the morning made it clear that those pupils had been magnificently prepared for secondary school by the school and their teacher.  And I also know that the most exciting and joyous school visit I’ve ever made turned out to be the saddest.





It’s Official: England’s Performance Is Among The Best In The World

That’s a headline you didn’t read this week, which is a great shame, not least because it’s actually true.

Given their normal degree of accuracy and fairness I suppose it’s no surprise to see newspaper headlines like “Britain’s Stagnating Schools”, and “Anxious UK Pupils Lag Behind In Maths”.   Most of our newspapers don’t need much excuse to beat up teachers, and they used the PISA reports to blast away at everything in sight.

No-one seemed to try very hard to make it clear that the information wasn’t gleaned across the whole school system, but related to tests given to 15-yearolds.  Now in actual fact, pupils in primary schools in England really score rather highly in tests, regularly featuring in the top ten or better.  I’ll say that again, in case any reporters are listening –  primary pupil performance in England is “Very good”.   I know that, because those are the words Stefano Pozzi – who’s the senior official at the DfE most responsible for leading the development of the new National Curriculum – used when he talked to a dozen of us earlier this year.  The official NFER report states that “England’s performance at year 5 is amongst the best in the world and continues to improve”.

One of the countries we’re often enjoined to imitate is South Korea.  There are lots of reasons why the Pacific Rim countries have such success rates, but I’m pretty certain one of the biggest is the culture that means that a quite astonishing 1.7% of the national GDP is spent on out-of-school additional tuition.  That’s a cost equivalent to 80% of the total government expenditure on primary and secondary education.   I suppose that as a One-To-One tutor I’m programmed to be particularly interested in this, but nearly three-quarters of South Korean children receive an average of seven hours a week of extra tuition; the government has recently been forced to pass a law that requires tutoring institutions to close by 10pm – otherwise students might still be studying in them at 1am.



Chess In Schools and Communities

Recently I was invited by Chess In Schools and Communities to talk to them about National Curriculum mathematics and I spent a delightful day with an inspiring group of people.  CSC have a project in which a chess tutor works alongside the Y5 teacher for a lesson a week; their task is to teach the children chess and the project will be evaluated to see if there is an effect on the children’s mathematics learning.  A separate project at Manchester Metropolitan University has already found some very positive suggestions that Y3 chess-players did substantially better when given a test involving non-verbal reasoning, maths, and problem-solving questions.

There are some areas of the Y5 programme of study where mathematics can clearly draw benefits from chess – co-ordinates, symmetry, translation.  Even more obvious are the links with the problem-solving thinking we’re accustomed to call Using And Applying Mathematics, where the current Y5 curriculum requires children to “Solve problems …, Explore puzzles, find / confirm solutions …, Plan and pursue an enquiry …, Explore patterns and relationships, …, Explain reasoning, …”.

I’ve spent a lifetime using games in the classroom, and I suggested that using games offers four main benefits.  A game like chess contributes to all four, and the maths classroom will draw particular benefits from the third and the fourth:

…… Games have a socialising value – children need to take turns, win and lose with grace, abide by the rules and the etiquette,

……Games are part of our cultural heritage (chess, cards, dominoes, backgammon, …); and from outside the UK chess itself, and Go, mancala, …. ,

……Games give enjoyment, and an environment in which children can accept high levels of challenge,

……Playing a game requires skills of observation, analysing, forming a plan, asking “What happens if?”  These have a very high correlation with the skills used in Using and Applying Mathematics.

You can find out about CSC at  http://www.chessinschools.co.uk/

http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects  will give you information about the research project.