Opinion

Three wishes for the new NPQ in Leading Primary Maths

The new qualification will need to fit into a better-defined context to deliver real impact, writes Helen Drury

The new qualification will need to fit into a better-defined context to deliver real impact, writes Helen Drury

18 Jul 2023, 5:00

As a passionate advocate for high-quality mathematics education, I’m disposed to be optimistic about the introduction of the new National Professional Qualification (NPQ) in Leading Primary Maths.

Early years and primary education undeniably lay the groundwork for a learner’s academic journey. By prioritising investment in mathematics education during these crucial stages, we can ensure that children develop a solid foundation in mathematical concepts and skills, empowering them to thrive in more advanced mathematics and related disciplines.

But I have three wishes: that the qualification be coherent, informed by the maths education research-base and achievable.

Career coherence

With regards to coherence, the new NPQ should be integrated into a unified, career-long approach to the development of teachers’ knowledge and skills. But we lack that framework, and it is unclear which teachers will be motivated to sign up for something that seems to add to the existing complexity of the national teacher development landscape.

An extensive list of NPQs is already available, including the NPQLT for leading teaching in a subject or phase. As far as I can tell, this new math-focused NPQ is simply that original NPQLT with the addition of a maths section at the start. But ‘leading teaching’ in a general sense across a subject, year group, key stage or phase is much more flexible and leads to all sorts of future opportunities. Given that the next promotion for most primary middle leaders of maths is very unlikely to be maths-specific, it’s unclear who this new qualification is for.

There is an additional coherence challenge regarding the course prerequisites. Prospective applicants are expected to have participated in the maths hubs ‘Teaching for Mastery’ programme for at least one year or have equivalent mastery expertise. But the criteria lack a clear definition of what constitutes a “secure level of understanding”, which is necessary to ensure teachers acquire new knowledge and skills rather than covering familiar ground.

A broad canon

Next, while the new NPQ’s content is very strong, it ought to guarantee participants a wider canon of maths education research. Of course, I’m pleased to see so much drawn from the evidence base of Mathematics Mastery by Ark Curriculum Plus, and it is also encouraging to see that it covers the accessibility of mathematics to all learners.

But given the rich history of mathematics education research and strong mathematical subject associations in the UK, it is surprising to find the NPQ references so few seminal works. And while the NPQ does reference the importance of reasoning, problem-solving, and metacognition, it fails to tap into the wealth of evidence and support materials available for fostering students’ mathematical thinking. This raises concerns about the depth of participants’ exposure to research and practice guidance

Facilitating impact

Finally, and crucially, the vision set out by the NPQ for what maths leads can achieve in schools needs to be realistic and supported by the broader education system. Its depiction of a primary school with comprehensive professional development, deep understanding of foundational concepts and effective mathematical pedagogy is appealing, but fails to consider the current constraints and challenges faced by primary teachers.

Primary practitioners already have limited time for collaborative lesson design and professional development compared to their peers in higher-performing jurisdictions. Expecting leaders to ensure teachers have adequate time for anything without addressing systemic issues is setting them up for failure.

Amid time constraints, incoherent career-long professional development and high accountability, achieving the desired outcomes requires a complete suite of planning, assessment, and resources along with accessible training to be successful.

Gillian Keegan says that the qualification is intended to “teach participants how to train other teachers to embed mastery pedagogy”. But even assuming they gained the skills, when and how would they have the time with their colleagues to make this a reality?

While the ambition behind the new NPQ is admirable, its potential success is hindered by existing obstacles. It is my sincere hope that the NPQ will successfully recruit participants, that its providers will deliver evidence-informed programmes and that it significantly impacts on pupils’ mathematical  learning nationwide.

However, considering the challenges faced by primary teachers, I fear that the odds are stacked against its success.

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