PART TWO: My Reservations about the New Primary Mathematics Curriculum

Post date: Feb 13, 2018 8:48:45 PM

Just over two weeks ago, I published a post entitled My Reservations about the New Primary Mathematics Curriculum. That post generated such publicity and discussion that I decided to follow it up with a second post, both to clarify some of the points in the first post, and to add some new information that has come to my attention.

I must say, I have been amazed by the responses that I have received from teachers, all of whom have very supportive of my position and my views. Míle buíochas as bhur dtacaíocht!

Most interesting of all, were the private messages that I was sent from some teachers whose schools are involved in the piloting/consultation phase of the new curriculum. These were unwilling to be quoted as they feared there might be repercussions. Suffice to say that they agreed with the points expressed and they felt that their concerns were also not being taken on board.

Consultative Seminar

Another development since my initial post, was that I was notified that, due to a cancellation, there was a place available for me on the consultative seminar being held on February 1st in the Hilton Hotel, Kilmainham, which I attended.

The focus of the initial part of this consultative seminar was to lay out the rationale, structure etc., of this new curriculum, to explain and discuss the underlying five aspects of mathematical proficiency, and to explain what was different and similar when compared to the current maths curriculum. There was an opportunity for us to record on post-its our comments and our questions, which were then discussed/addressed, albeit in a limited way, largely due to time constraints.

Needless to say, I asked plenty of sticky questions, was quite vocal and opinionated, and I'm sure some of the participants felt that I had hijacked the seminar! But, as I said previously, I have never felt so strongly about a curricular issue and I was determined to have my opinions and concerns acknowledged and, perhaps, addressed.

A synopsis of some of the extra information, I gleamed from this seminar follows below (I will flesh out on some of these points in the rest of this post):

  • The consultation process will run to the end of this month, February 2018. But since the consultative seminars are now over ( I was at the last one), the only feedback route available to teachers currently is via the online survey.

  • The NCCA are also working with a number of schools (eight schools, I understand from a source; a very small sample in all fairness) from a variety of backgrounds and situations and are receiving "very intensive feedback". However, from the information communicated to me from a teacher involved in this process, I am skeptical that this feedback will have any impact.

  • Through enquiries made with the other attendees during the day, it seems that the distribution of the notifications about these consultative seminars was quite limited. As I mentioned previously, I only happened to stumble upon the notifications myself on the actual NCCA site while researching the new curriculum. The other attendees that I spoke to, had all heard about it via a single tweet from the NCCA on the 12 Jan 2018, only 11 days before the Jan 23 closing date. Many of them said that when they asked their principals about attending the seminar, their principals hadn't heard about it. This isn't really indicative of a widespread, all-inclusive consultation process.

  • While it was titled as a "consultative" seminar, it was made clear, after questioning, that the proposed structure of using progression milestones was not up for negotiation; these stemmed from a "policy decision" made, I assume, by an individual or individuals, higher up in the pecking order than the actual NCCA. It was mentioned that this "policy decision" was made in the wake of the publication of the The National Strategy to Improve Literacy and Numeracy "Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life".

  • When pressed with regards to what actually is still up for negotiation, it appears that the only aspect of the draft document that might be amended at this stage is the actual wording of the progression milestones/learning experiences (some of the the progression milestones for money are shown below). These are somewhat comparable to the content objectives of the 1999 curriculum, although where the 1999 content objectives all start with "The child shall be enabled to....", these new statements instead all begin "the child..." recognises/understands/ discusses etc (see examples below).

This very much means that, where, in the 1999 curriculum, the onus was on the teacher to provide learning experiences that enabled the children to achieve specific objectives, the focus now will be on the teacher assessing each child/group of children as to whether they are able to, for example, recognise and understand the relative value of coins up to the value of at least 20c, 50c, €1 etc. This seems to suggest to me that, in the future, teachers may be evaluated, not so much on the quality of the teaching and learning experiences that they have provided, but rather on what the pupils know and can do at the end of the unit of work. And as teachers, we all know that, despite our best efforts, for some children, their actual learning may only reflect a very small amount of what the teacher has been teaching.

  • Learning outcomes have been stated for the end of senior infants (stage 1) and the end of second class (stage 2). In the draft document, these are given above each table that lists the progression milestones/learning experiences for each specific learning outcome label; in the image above, the learning outcomes are for the learning outcome label of money for stage 1 and 2. They are also provided in a separate section of the document (see below the learning outcomes for the strand of shape and space).

Many of the participants commented on the vagueness of these learning outcome statements and how they provide little guidance for the teacher who might be intending to use these to plan teaching content. For example, consider the learning outcomes below for the strand of shape and space; in the learning outcome label of shape, they do not actually specify what 2D or 3D shapes should be focused on each in class, or that should have been encountered by the end of each stage. And, if you read further in the document, the specific progression milestones for this learning outcome label also do not specify or suggest suitable shapes.

In response to our comments about the vagueness of these learning outcomes, we were told that "the learning outcomes are intentionally broad because teachers wanted that" and that teachers "did not want to be restricted or constrained" by the curriculum. I am not aware of how or when teachers were consulted on this to get their views, but I honestly believe that teachers tend to prefer to have more, rather than less, guidance when it comes to curricular areas.

  • After repeatedly asking if any other country was structuring their maths curriculum in this way, I was told that Scotland was using a similar structure. Knowing little, at the time, about the maths curriculum in Scotland, except that they didn't feature in the top global performers, I was unable to comment further.

  • It appears that the publication of this curriculum, for infants to second class, is currently earmarked for September of this year, although the NCCA representatives said that this is not definite, as they have made suggestions to the Department that it might be preferable to publish the whole curriculum, for infants to sixth class together, which would then likely be postponed until September 2019. Either way, whether it's in two halves or altogether, the entire curriculum is scheduled to be out in 2019, and most likely, is due to be implemented from September 2020.

  • Some of the participants who were working in special education classes/schools welcomed this curriculum, saying that it was more inclusive and that they imagined it would make their planning easier and help them teach to the needs of their students.

  • Some of the participants who had received training in Aistear and maths intervention (Mata sa Rang) welcomed the aspects of the curriculum that echoed the philosophies underlying these programs. However, they also pointed out that it was their training and experiences that afforded them this outlook and that not all primary teachers would have received this intensive training nor was it likely that they would be provided with such intensive training as part of the roll-out of this curriculum.

Global comparisons - Scotland

As I stated in the previous post, I was 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. At the consultative seminar we were told that Scotland uses a similar structure to this new proposed curriculum. So I went home to research the mathematics curriculum in Scotland. It made for some interesting reading.

Scotland has only participated sporadically in TIMSS, and didn't participate in 2011 or 2015 (despite the fact that many Scottish educationalists believe that the country should be participating) so it's difficult to assess its mathematical attainment in primary schools when compared to other countries. However, it has participated consistently in the secondary level equivalent of TIMSS, which is called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). And in the latest PISA (2015) figures Scotland's schools have recorded their worst ever performance where the scores for maths, reading and science all declined. Some experts are very much laying the blame for this decline on the Scottish Curriculum.

The curriculum in Scotland is entitled the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), was developed during the naughties and implemented in schools in 2010. A government spokesperson said that CfE provided “a flexible model for teachers to design learning, which meets the needs of individual pupils, adapting to their individual styles, backgrounds and preferences” (quoted from here). Sound familiar?

According to Wikipaedia

"Before its introduction, many within the Scottish teaching profession, including the teachers' trade union The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) and its members, believed that the Curriculum for Excellence was vague, in particular regarding its supposed 'outcomes and experiences'. There existed a fear that this imprecision would result in a lack of clarity in what was expected of teachers in the classroom and in the assessment of pupils' progress and attainment."

The article goes on to say that such were the initial concerns that "one of the most educationally successful Scottish local authorities, delayed implementation of the secondary school phase of the new curriculum by one year" as did some other independent schools. And most of the reports and evaluations of the curriculum to date are also negative, stating that this new curriculum leaves many pupils bored, with experts saying that it has only about five years left to get it right. Another expert, Professor Mark Priestly states:

"Foremost amongst these [issues] is the framing of the curricula as detailed learning outcomes – hundreds of statements arrayed into hierarchical levels. These are a throwback to the original National Curriculum in England, with its simplistic assumptions that learning is a neat linear progress, to be measured at every stage, rather than a messy and emergent developmental process that varies between individuals. In Scotland, the learning outcomes are, in my opinion, largely responsible for the rather patchy implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. As the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher stated on BBC news in 2016, Scotland needs to move from an intended curriculum to an implemented curriculum. Detailed learning outcomes have been linked to heavy duty accountability processes; they can encourage risk aversion and tick-box approaches to curriculum development in schools."

It is mind boggling, that of all curricula that we could have looked to for inspiration and guidance, it was the curriculum of a country that has always had an only average attainment in maths, which has now plummeted further. And the fact that this sharp decline is being attributed by many to the same vague curriculum is really frightening. Is this where we are heading?

Vagueness of proposed curriculum

As I stated earlier, the vagueness of the learning outcomes and progression milestones in the draft curriculum were the cause of some concern to many of the participants at the consultative seminar. The NCCA representatives were very much defending this by explaining that the teachers are experts, that they know what is best for their pupils and that the "intentionally broad" statements were to allow them the flexibility to cater for the individual needs of their pupils.

Now, it's all good and well to praise us as being experts, but as we all know, primary teachers have to teach all the classes and all subjects and, like our students, we each have different strengths and weaknesses.

  • What if a teacher's strength is in a different subject area than maths?

  • What if a teacher changes from teaching a specific class level, where they built up a certain expertise to a different class level where they are not so much of an expert?

  • Similarly, what if a teacher moves from a school of a specific profile to one that is very different (eg urban, rural, DEIS, Special Education, multi-grade, gaelscoil etc), again, where they have less expertise and experience?

  • What if the teacher is newly qualified and has not yet built up the expertise that comes with years of teaching?

Most of the maths curricula with which I am familiar, are significantly more specific in their objectives for each class level than our current maths curriculum, which, in my opinion, was a slight flaw in our curriculum. When I originally heard that a new maths curriculum was on the way, I just presumed that it would go the direction of these countries and become more specific, providing us with more detailed guidance, allowing us as teachers to rely more on the curriculum and less on the content of text books.

I never dreamed it would go completely in the opposite direction!

Interestingly, while on one hand, us teachers are lauded as being experts and capable of choosing what is appropriate for us to teach each individual child or group of children, on the other had we are required to comply with ever-increasing, very specific rules and regulations in relation to school policies and procedures e.g. child protection, data protection etc.

These two opposing views of teachers are very confusing and contradictory.

The role of the NCCA

Prior to to the publication of my previous post, I was under the impression that the NCCA was leading this curricular reform and that it was responsible for deciding to go the route of progression milestones. Now, I'm beginning to think that this is not the case; that the decision to reform the curriculum in this way was made higher up, and that the NCCA were simply charged with the responsibility of writing a curriculum that satisfied the required criteria.

Similarly, one of the teachers who contacted me felt that:

"...the NCCA have a limited budget and time frame set by the Department and it must be met. They must also abide by the template set out."

On one of Radio One's Drivetime programmes last November, reporter Barry Lenihan, who interviewed a group of former and current employees in the NCCA, quoted some of their statements, one of which was the following:

"Schools think that what they're getting is well researched and piloted. It's not. People are been given research material but don't have time to read it. I expressed concerns but nothing was done.

Reading between the lines, it appears that the NCCA is under pressure from higher powers to push ahead with this curriculum, in spite of little or no evidence to suggest that this will have a positive impact on mathematics education, and more likely, when the criticisms and evaluations of the Scottish curriculum are considered, that it will have a pronounced negative impact instead.


As I said earlier, the only avenue left for the majority of us, to be involved in this consultation process, is to complete the online survey. At the seminar, it was mentioned that this should only take about 15 minutes to complete, but I spent about 40 minutes at least completing it myself, as many of the questions were based on the draft document and I had to have both the survey and the document open in adjacent windows on my laptop to be able to go back and forth between both.

So while I don't want to put you off, and I'd really like as many teachers to voice their concerns, I must be honest and warn you that it's not really an easy survey to complete. On the INTO mailing list for support teachers, where I circulated the link to my original post, one teacher commented on the survey saying:

"I had a look at the online survey, and I was reminded why I rarely fill in surveys even if I want to give feedback: they never ask me questions that have any interest for me. Their questions are meaningless and irrelevant, and usually constructed so that they will get the answer they desire."

Despite this, I do think that if you, too, have reservations and concerns, it's important to make that known.

So what next?

I honestly don't know. I'm hoping that teachers will share this post with others, as they did with the previous post, so as to keep this issue live.

I am hoping that somebody in a position of influence and authority will acknowledge my concerns and reservations, and recognise the truth in them.

I'm hoping that the INTO will take interest in these matters and also begin also to ask questions. I understand than as part of previous pay negotiations with the DES, an agreement was made that we would engage fully with curricular reform. I'm fully and wholeheartedly in favour of reform when the reform proposes changes that will bring about positive developments. What is proposed currently will not bring about positive change.

If this curriculum goes ahead, as is, I predict that some, or all, of these outcomes will occur:

  • In the next TIMSS Ireland will have dropped from 9th position to some place significantly lower.

  • Teachers, after trying unsuccessfully to get their heads around planning for the progression milestones, will ignore them and go back to teaching the content prescribed for each class in the 1999 curriculum (obviously with differentiation for various needs, as we had been doing anyway).

  • Teachers, particularly those who don't believe themselves to be experts at their assigned class level, will begin to rely more on the content prescribed in the textbooks and we'll return to an era of teaching the textbooks not teaching the curriculum.

  • As teachers get more frustrated, their attitudes towards the teaching of maths will deteriorate (even for those like me, who love teaching maths). And it's no secret that teachers attitudes and behaviors in relation to a subject, affect their classroom practice in the subject (Rennie, Goodrum, and Hackling, 2001). This could mean spending less teaching time on the subject, as well as susceptible students picking up on the teacher's frustration and negativity which in turn will affect their own attitudes towards maths.

Either way, this doesn't bode well for the future of primary maths education in this country.