My Reservations about the New Primary Mathematics Curriculum

Post date: Jan 28, 2018 8:42:06 PM

The new Primary Mathematics Curriculum is currently out for consultation, with the draft curriculum for infants to second class available to view online.

I must express strongly, that I have grave reservations about the structure of this proposed curriculum. Now, the cynic in me believes that voicing my concerns is probably going to have little or no effect on the changes coming. That said, I have rarely felt so strongly about a curricular issue, and I feel I owe it to myself, and all teachers, to voice my concerns and reservations now.

However, I must also make it clear that I have no issues per se with the underlying rationale of the proposed curriculum.The philosophy and theory behind it are commendable and laudable and in particular, the emphasis being placed on the importance of the children understanding maths, as opposed to just memorizing it or doing it in a procedural way. Indeed the notion of teaching maths for understanding is one that I have personally promoted for years and is the key principle underpinning the approach that I use in any of the publications for primary maths that I have authored or being involved in.

Rather, my major reservations lie with its structure, and the fact that this proposed maths curriculum is not organised according to class groups/levels but instead is organised along a continum of progression milestones, similar to that used in the Primary Language Curriculum.

Global comparisons

I am not aware of any other maths curriculum in the world that doesn't specify the specific expected learning outcomes for each and every class or year:

Why am I listing these specific countries?

Firstly, because I am most familiar with the maths curricula of these countries, largely due to the fact that they are also English-speaking countries, making it easier to access their maths content online.

Secondly, because some of these countries also feature prominently in international studies of mathematical attainment among primary students (eg TIMSS). Singapore and Hong Kong consistently feature among the top three countries and mathematics education in both these countries is often presented as examples of best practice globally.

Notable in recent TIMSS results is Ireland's position in ninth place overall, an increase from 17th place on the previous study in 2011. This significant increase occurred at a time when our mathematics curriculum was specified for each class level.

It begs the question; if it's not broke, why fix it?

Planning is key to successful implementation

As I mentioned earlier, this draft mathematics curriculum revolves around a continum of progression milestones, similar to those to which we were introduced in the language curriculum. The intention is that teachers are expected to "locate the majority of children in the class on the appropriate Progression Milestone, and orientate children who are at an earlier or later point in their learning and development".

If there is to be successful implementation of this curriculum then it must be taught by the teachers in the classrooms. For teachers to teach, they must be able to plan. And in my opinion, this continuum of progression milestones make it very difficult to plan.

Primarily, there is no clear or obvious way to work out exactly what each class teacher is expected to be teaching each class level in maths.

The 1999 curriculum was logically divided into strands and strand units, and furthermore had detailed content objectives which listed exactly what "the child should be enabled" to achieve in each class level. This meant that a teacher could walk fresh into, for example, a first class in September, planning to enable the children to understand place value to 99, addition with and without renaming, subtraction without renaming and all the other content objectives for first class as set out in the current curriculum. He/she could then subsequently re-adjust and differentiate the work and activities for the various ability groups in the class as he/she became more familiar with their strengths and weaknesses.

However, with this proposed curriculum, before you even start you have to identify the appropriate progression milestone for the majority of the class and then plan where to go from there!

This, to me, sounds like an almost impossible task, especially if you're starting out fresh with a new group of children, or in a less familiar class level or even in a different school setting. How do you locate, on the first day, where on the continum are the majority of your pupils? How do you plan for that first day or even the initial weeks of the school year?

So what does the class teacher do? Spend September assessing instead of teaching? Brings to mind that saying "time spent weighing the pig doesn't make it fatter".

And planning is key to successful implementation. Even the NCCA acknowledged this when they created the excellent online Curriculum Planning Tool to complement and assist teachers in their curricular planning. I know that significant time and resources were devoted to the production of this resource, which many teachers found to be invaluable to enable them to access and use the current curriculum.

Ironically, the first choice a teacher is prompted to make when accessing this tool is to select their class level; this effectively means that this proposed curriculum makes the NCCA's own planning tool defunct.

Other potential problems

I also think there are a whole host of other potential problems with this proposed curriculum that I'm not sure have been considered, and that not specifying the specific content for each class will lead to major problems in the long term:

  • In this draft curriculum, which is aimed at infants to second classes, there is content listed that currently are objectives for third class not second.

    • I presume the idea is that not that all children would be be expected to start doing content that was traditionally aimed at third class in second, but that the highly capable and competent children would be enabled to access the higher content.

    • However, teachers might feel that they are expected to move these better-able children on to the next stage in the continum where they are doing "higher" content, traditionally aimed at a higher class, when instead, they should be facilitating the children to go deeper into the content of the second class programme

    • Futhermore, pressure to move the children on, might result in children being moved on when it appears the child has the content mastered i.e. superficial understanding, rather than allowing the child to develop depth of knowledge (like the examples I read about recently here)

  • If teachers start moving the more able children though the progression continua, then surely this will have a knock-on effect on curriculum of third to sixth classes when it arrives.

    • What about the more-able child who is pushed through the continua so that when they are in 4th or 5th they have all the stages complete? What then? It's not like the can start on the secondary curriculum when they have "finished" the primary one.

  • I fear that teachers will ultimately be asked to justify their location of various children in their class on each specific level of the continua. This will again add to the workload of teachers and potentially increase their stress as they try to validate the reason for the content they've selected, a decision that they didn't need to defend previously, since the curriculum specified the content for the class.

I wonder too, if it has been considered how this will affect others involved in the primary system?

  • Parents: the NCCA has devoted significant time to developing tip sheets, videos etc for parents to help inform them of the content of the various class levels and to assist them supporting their children in a meaningful way. They even have a tip sheet for parents of second class children outlining how they can support their child with regrouping in subtraction. This is now effectively defunct since depending on where the child is placed on the continua they may be learning how to do subtraction with regrouping in first class, second or even third. Can you imagine how difficult it's going to be for parents to get their heads around this new curriculum and to understand what is expected of their children, if even the teachers are unsure?

  • Standardised Assessments: These are becoming more and more important as the DES requests access to these scores. But since these also are designed, normed and administered to children based on their class level and the prescribed content for that specific class level, I can't quite get my head around how these are going to have to evolve to account for the wide variations possible with this proposed curriculum.

  • Publishers: Now I know there are plenty who will argue that to teach maths effectively you do not need a text book, and, while this is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree, it can also be the case that both teachers and pupils can benefit from the back-up of a textbook, so long as it is of good quality, and with an emphasis on understanding. Charlie Stripp, the director of the NCETM in the UK argues this point well in his article Textbooks aren't professional straitjackets, where he explains:

"I am convinced that a good maths textbook has the potential to significantly improve how maths lessons are taught, and how, in turn, pupils progress in the subject... a teacher can really concentrate on what pupils do and say in class, using his or her professional judgement to make minute adjustments to a pupil’s journey of mathematical learning. But this only works if the textbook is of high quality and matches the curriculum."

Well, there's the problem straight away. How can Irish publishers produce high quality maths text books that match the curriculum if the curriculum can be so varied across the progression criteria in each class?

Does the NCCA know what it is doing?

I know that there will be many who will ask who do I think I am to be questioning the NCCA? Surely their combined body of knowledge carries with it far more authority that the musings of one apprehensive teacher?

I would most certainly have thought so too, but that was before I came across the allegations of bullying in the NCCA that were publicised last November. In one of these reports, it states that "staff do not feel confident in standing over the work that the NCCA does". This is surely a cause for concern when major curriculum changes are being considered and managed by this same body.

It is also worth mentioning that the NCCA has had to do major curricular u-turns in the past.

When the current English curriculum was launched in 1999, it was laid out with oral language, reading and writing as strand units and the current strand units of Receptiveness to language, Competence and confidence in using language, Developing cognitive abilities through language, Emotional and imaginative development through language were listed instead as the strands. But teachers found it so difficult to plan and teach, starting with these as strands, that the documents had to re-envisioned and re-launched in their current structure.

Which goes to prove that the NCCA don't always get it correct.

Interestingly, in the 1999 Primary Curriculum, Maths was the only subject prescribed by individual class level as opposed to band i.e. the content objectives for all the other subjects were prescribed for junior and senior infants together, first and second together etc whereas maths had a specific set of objectives for first class and a specific set of objectives for second class and so on. This appears to mean that somebody at that stage appreciated the need for maths objectives to be specified for each class level, as was, and is done, in other countries.

Yet now it appears we are moving back to a model where there are no objectives specified for individual class levels.

So what next?

As I mentioned at the outset, this draft curriculum is currently out for consultation. According to their website this consultation process will run to February 2018 (I'm not sure if that is the beginning or end of February) and includes:

  • Teachers and principals trying out aspects of the curriculum and sharing their feedback (Do you know of anybody involved in this? I would love to hear their opinions)

  • An online survey

  • Three public consultative seminars being held on January 30th (Kilmurry Lodge, Limerick), January 31st (Sligo Education Centre) and February 1st (Hilton Hotel, Kilmainham, Dublin)

I had been keeping an eye on social media to see where and when the proposed "nationwide" consultative seminars would be held and by the time I came across this information, the January 23rd application deadline had passed. I still applied for a place but was contacted later to notify me that the places for the Dublin event (for which I had applied) are all gone.

This means that the only avenue left to express my concerns direct to the NCCA was via the online survey, which I completed. I found it difficult enough to read and answer with many statements being almost as vague and non-specific as the curriculum itself and only felt that it was when I got to section 9, "How appropriate do you feel the Progression Continua are in relation to the learning outcomes of primary school children?", that I got an opportunity to express my opinion, but even then you are limited to "please tick one box on each line". I not convinced about how useful this type of feedback is.

I'm also a little skeptical that this survey feedback will carry any weight. Anecdotal evidence from a source informed me that when a particular subject was out for consultation, the publishers had already been provided with advance copies of the actual curriculum, to reduce the time required for them to produce suitable material.

So, I wonder if this consultation is just a publicity exercise to make it appear that the NCCA are listening to and considering the views of teachers, when in fact the final decisions are already made?

I'm passionate about maths and about teaching it for understanding. And I would be much more in favour of this curriculum if it was structured according to classes rather than along a continuum of progression milestones. It would also be more useful if the progression milestone statements were more precise and exact, as often they are quite vague and non-specific.

Currently, I am struggling to get my head around the practicalities of organising and planning for this curriculum in a classroom. I believe the NCCA needs to go back to the drawing board for this one.

To my fellow teachers, I urge you to share this information with other teachers so that they can be informed. And then please contact those who may have influence with regards to this issue; the NCCA, Richard Bruton, local TDs, the INTO, the DES, the PDST etc.


The last mathematics curriculum was published in 1999, nearly twenty years ago. If this one goes ahead it's likely we are going to have to try to teach it for the next twenty years.

I love teaching maths but since the reality is that I'm now in the second half of my teaching career, I don't want to have to spend the rest it struggling to plan and teach the subject I love.