Mixed-age management, a decade-long journey, and more. Our crew are joined by Eliza Hollis, an Executive Head who’s journey implementing maths across local village schools is nothing but inspiring. How does the mixed-age setting possibly work with 3 year groups in one class? What prompted Eliza to embark on this mission with maths? Plus, hear about Eliza’s experience with 5 inspections in one year… yes, you read that correctly - FIVE!
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School Podcast.
Welcome to the School of School podcast.
So welcome back to another episode of the School of School podcast. Happy New Year, everybody. Happy New Year, Adam, and Andy.
Thanks, Robin. Happy New Year to you too.
Yeah. It's good to be in 2024.
Of course, for our listeners, this might not be appearing until later, but this is our first official recording of the new year.
Yeah, exactly, and it is 2024. Here we are. And with us, I feel so lucky to have her on, very fortunate to have visited Eliza Hollis, who is the executive headteacher of the Forest Federation. I visited her schools and they're just so lovely. Eliza, really excited to have you on today. We want to hear about your journey with Maths No Problem!, and maybe you could introduce yourself a little bit more.
Thank you, Robin, and thank you, everybody. Yes, I'm the executive headteacher of the Forest Federation of Schools. We are five small rural village primary schools surrounding the market town of Towcester in West Northants. The smallest school I have has got 45 pupils in total enrolled, and the biggest school is just over 100. You can imagine, we have classes that have reception year one and two in and other classes that go from year three all the way up to year six. That in itself comes with some challenges.
The journey that I've been on with the schools started, it seems like a lifetime ago, way back in 2011. When the first for Federation started, we basically had three tiny schools that came together under my leadership. And part of that remit was looking at how we lead small rural schools more efficiently. I started by looking at systems, processes and the curriculum.
Now, the curriculum, as you can imagine, in those days, we had lots of different things going on. We had only two classes in each of the schools at the time, with 30 children. Both, all the schools were in a little bit of a pickle, one was in a notice to improve, so we needed to look at the curriculum and start moving things forward. Part of my monitoring, I was going around the classrooms, and I could see children busy doing their maths, doing some of their numeracy work, and I was really struck by the fact that they weren't using manipulatives. They were really struggling with these abstract concepts. And obviously, when I trained to be a teacher, we had so many manipulatives out. We had the Dienes, we had the Base-10, we had ten frames, but my staff weren't using that. And I remember saying, "Why aren't you using concrete apparatus?"
I did a bit of research, basically, and I came across Maths — No Problem!. Now, remember, this was before the 2014 new national curriculum. I did a little bit of digging, I ended up going to some training, and I took with me two or three members of staff, one from each of the schools, because it's important that you get that momentum. We went on the training together, and I think I'm right in saying that it was Andy that did the training way back then-
It would have been me.
... and we were absolutely blown away with what we saw. And I was saying, "Why aren't we doing it? Why aren't we doing teaching maths?" And the thing is, in those days, it seems like a long time ago, but we were using various different resources, everything wasn't streamlined, and for my staff, it was like, "Wow, we need to start this."
I got three members of staff, one in each school to trial it. They trialled it with the oldest children. And in school, at the time, using concrete apparatus was very much seen as something that you did with the youngest children. And actually, the oldest children were a bit, "Oh, no, we don't need to use any apparatus," so we had to change the culture. We had to change the mindset. It's a bit like, there's a lot of parents is when I'll get onto that, maths is not seen as a cool subject. We had a lot of work to do about the culture, the ethos, the mindset, and even just getting staff involved with the principles behind it. That was the beginning of the journey, way back in 2011. And we haven't deviated at all from Maths No Problem! since then.
Obviously, in 2014, we had the new national curriculum. By then we'd been doing it 18 months using Maths No Problem!, and I'd rolled it out across the school from year one right up to year six. And when the new national curriculum came in 2014, there was a real buzz around maths and the words "maths mastery," "fluency," all words that, for some of us teachers out there, had not heard before. However, we were well on that journey with maths, so for us, it made perfect sense to align the new national curriculum with the Maths No Problem!. It was all there for us. It was wonderful that my staff felt really confident in delivering the maths curriculum in 2014 when it arrived. And then, obviously, since then the maths hubs then started. We didn't have anything, but we were already on that journey. That was the start for us. Does that make sense?
Yeah, fantastic. And it's just wonderful to hear your story, and for me, quite a bit of a trip down memory lane as well. It's hard, I think, for a lot of people to imagine, especially teachers who have only recently started teaching, what it was like back then.
Adam, where were you in 2011? What were you doing?
I was just preparing for my first headship.
And I think that I was involved in some maths stuff, because I think 2012 was when we took on Maths No problem!. I think it was a transition and we were a growing school as well. We were adding a form entry onto our school. We're going to come back and ask Eliza about that. You've just said things with such positivity and I'm thinking, how did you manage the splitting classes and all this sort of stuff? How did you manage a new thing, a new curriculum, a new approach? Plus, you've got multi-year groups in one class. You've got this massive broad smile on your face, the listeners can't see it, and I'm thinking, flipping it, there's some work in there.
We might have to have more than one podcast with you. It sounds like there's a lot of topics to cover.
Definitely. And I think, for me, on a personal note, for me, maths was something that I struggled with as a child because I am very much a visual learner and I like the concrete.
I loved, as a teacher, teaching maths, so I've always wanted to be part of leading maths, and I think my love of maths has come from the struggles that I had as a child in learning maths. For me, I loved the fact that I could see children, the penny drop when they had the apparatus out. They could actually physically manipulate and move things around, and then, they really understood what was going on with number. And I don't think we had that depth before. For me, those teachers that are those mathematicians who just get it, it took them a while to understand why we were doing what we were doing. The training was so important so that they understood the pedagogy, they understood why we're doing what we're doing and the process that Maths No Problem! has. And I think, for those people, that has been excellent and moved the practise on in all of my schools.
Hm. And that's an interesting point, and I think it's maybe something worth exploring a little bit is the training and what do you need to do in a training session in order for people to have that realisation. Because look, as professionals, teachers often go to training. They have all kinds of different experiences in training. Some training sessions are very effective, some aren't. I can certainly talk about how we try to do things at Maths No Problem! and how we were doing things even way back then. But from your experience, what makes training successful? Because look, you had a tremendous challenge.
It was basically, you have to sell it, you have to get people engaged with it. Having all the apparatus out, getting them doing what the children will do really made them understand, "Oh, I see why we need to do this." It's like breaking things down into small chunks for them to understand the bigger process, and I think that was the key, and having one or two key people that were the champions. Once they became the champions and they understood it, they were then going back to staff and saying, "Do you know what? Try this, try this lesson. Have a go at this." And then, the momentum gathered. For me, having an inspiring trainer, somebody that is doing it, understands it, and also faces the challenges, but we came away and we said, "This is great, but it's very much year one, year two, year three, year four. How are we going to do that in our schools?"
So then, we went back and looked at how we deliver our day. And we do something called continuous provision now, from reception right the way through to year six. We don't really do whole class teaching. We then target teach small groups of children at a time, which is great because you can address those misconceptions straight away. For us, the process was huge. We love the programme, we love the scheme, how are we then going to implement it in our schools?
And we are still evolving that to this day, and it's been really noticeable because I took on a new school this time last year, which have got mixed-age classes, but they didn't really understand how we teach, so not only have we had to show them the benefits of how we teach and deliver Maths No Problem!, they then had to then have a go. They're used to doing whole class teaching. They're used to doing the old, "Right, this is the calculation. Year threes, you're doing this. Year fours, you're doing that." That's not what it's about.
We had to really show them, but because we've got other staff in the other schools that were already doing it, they were able to go and see it in action and then go back and have a go. And I said, "Just try it with year threes to start with, but also, get the apparatus." Everybody's got a maths trolley. Maths has got more of a buzz about it now. Children are talking about maths, they're talking about number. The presence of maths in schools is a high calibre. But at the same time, we had to also get the parents involved because parents will talk to you about their love of reading and writing, but you hear that negative, "Oh, I don't like maths. I'm no good at maths."
Again, we've had to work on the parents' mindset about how maths is exciting. Yeah, we've got lots. You don't realise until you talk about it, actually, how much you've done. And it is about starting that journey small and thinking about where we're going to, and we're still doing it now. We're still using Maths No Problem! now. And it's worked. Our results are amazing, our children's knowledge, they're able to articulate. Maths got a real buzz about it, so why change it if it's not broken?
Good point. Yes. And as I mentioned, I've had the opportunity to be at a couple of your schools and see the teachers in action using it in the classroom and how much enthusiasm the pupils have and seeing them being excited, I would say, about maths and about learning and about contributing to the lesson. And I just wonder, do you think, I know some of your teachers are pretty incredible. Do you think it's credit to the teacher or credit to just how all of you are managing this? What's the secret?
I think, for us, particularly this year with this new school on board, when I talked and I showed them Maths No Problem!, I showed them how to deliver it, I showed them all the resources. They were like, "Oh, my god, this is amazing. We don't have to scrabble around and find them. It's all there." I can then concentrate on upskilling them as teachers in the delivery because everything's there for them.
Some teachers do struggle with mixed-age classes, but I always say, learning is a continuum. It's looking about where that child is, what their next steps are, this is what it's about. And actually, my staff have got each other to talk to, but they get a wealth of experience of what children in reception can do right up to what children in year two can do. But it's not about giving them harder work and saying, "Well, you're reception, you can do year one." It's not about that. It's about the breadth that we do with children. And I think that's where it's been really successful across our year groups. But I know a lot of schools do really struggle with mixed-age classes and that delivery.
There's no question that mixed-age classes is a challenge, and it's something that's unfamiliar to a lot of teachers and a bit of a mystery. But I've often pondered about, we often talk about, I suppose, why it's difficult and maybe some of the challenges, and possibly, even, some of the disadvantages. I don't think we often, often enough talk about the advantages of it. And I'd be curious to hear if you feel that there are any advantages to mixed age groups because just I'm pondering, I've never taught in a middle age group scenario before, a mixed age group, sorry, and I wonder, because you've got this wide range, do you find that people become a little bit more empathetic, maybe better at communicating and explaining and working with people that can either help them or learning how to help those who are maybe a little bit further behind? Is that something that happens? Or exactly what happens?
Absolutely. We do a lot of outreach work with other schools. We do work within our own schools, but we are reaching out to lots of small schools in this area, and lots of teachers come and spend time with us. I think, what I found, it's not just benefiting my staff, the children become much more articulate. They're able to, we have lead learners and they wear little high visible, high vis jackets.
Oh, I love that.
And they love the fact that the teacher's busy with that year group over there, but I'm the lead learner in maths, so I'm going to come along and I'm going to help you with the maths. They absolutely ... Because they're able to articulate it. And I think there are so many positives for children mixed-age classes that people don't see that they worry that, "Oh, it's going to be the older children in ..." We've got eleven-year-olds in with seven-year-olds, and the seven-year-olds-
Absolutely. They rise to the occasion. It's us, as the adults, that put the ceiling on it. The children love it. They love to hear what the older ones are doing. And by the fact they're in the same environment, they want to be like them. Those children model that behaviour for learning, they model the confidence, and our children leave our little schools very confident because they're all in the rugby team, they're all in the netball team, they're all on the school council. They all have those lead jobs whether they like it or not, because there might only be five of them in a year group.
But they love ... Socially, and those skills, they're able to talk and play with children that are four right up until with children that are 11, so their interpersonal skills are really developed as well. There's lots of positives for mixed-age classes.
And what about for the community? Because you're serving very small communities here, right? What kind of impact does that have on the community, the fact that the children, I suppose, each other all that much better?
They do. And I think, because our villages are not that far away from each other, the parents then get to know the other parents in the other villages because the children end up making friendships, because we do have opportunities where we bring our schools together as best we can.
For us, the community is a very tight-knit community, but they also get the opportunities to meet other communities. We will bring, the year sixes, for instance, we bring them together at the end of year for an end of year six prom, and they absolutely love it. We bring them together for sporting events. We're having a Number Day in a couple of weeks' time as part of the National Number Day. We are bringing children together for that and learning together.
The community, I think, really has benefited. They see themselves as part of a bigger family, and that's what I think we are. We're one tiny little rural village, but we're part of the bigger family of the Forest Federation, and it's like a big hug around them. That's how I look at it.
Can I ask a question, Eliza?
I've worked in a wee school in New Zealand where, same thing, two teachers, and the community was, like any, just us. It was so tight-knit. The parents were just walking in doing a spot of gardening, walking out. It was really, really close-knit. One of the things that I struggled with when I was brand new to teaching was that fluidity and approach, so I could attend to that child, then that child, then this child, then that child, which was lovely. But I also found it, and this was just probably reflected in the experience as well, a wee bit difficult to manage.
My question is, you've now implemented the approach in a number of schools, so you've had practise doing it. Do you have a hierarchy of, "Right, this is the first thing that you need to concentrate on, and then work on this, and then work on that?" Does that exist?
Yes, to an extent. I think, in terms of general teaching, it's getting their head around how we teach in a mixed-age class. We give teachers the opportunity to have a go at just doing that target teaching, because naturally, teachers are control freaks. We want to control everything. But actually, it's getting them to understand and flip that and say, "Well, actually, okay, if you introduce this week's learning and say to the children," we call them cool tasks, and they're called carrying on our learning. They might be doing history. In history, they're doing the Romans, for instance. But they'll say to them, "Okay, this is the research we're doing as a group together, but the rest of the week, you've got to produce a PowerPoint or an art or a booklet, however way you want, but you've got to tell me these key five historical facts. Off you go."
And then, the teachers have got to allow those children, then, to work independently when they're not working with the teacher and do that work. And that's the hardest bit to get teachers to do. In terms of teaching maths, it was very much about, have a go at one lesson, let them use the apparatus, and then, what we'll do is we will go through each part of the lesson and we will model it for you.
For instance, they'll all come and watch one of my maths specialists and how he does the explore. And he will then talk about, "This is the explore part, this is how we do it, this is what journaling is about." We've broken it down into, literally, the components of the maths lesson. And that takes time because some people put a lot of emphasis on the textbook rather than the explore. It's making sure they understand why we're doing what we're doing and what part of the lesson is important and why.
That's been key, I think, because, for some teachers, it's like getting through the explore bit so they can get onto the textbook. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. It's the explore bit that's really your meat on the bones. Get those children discussing, get those children talking, get them journaling. That is key. When they're confident, then, they can go and do their textbook work. It's flipping it a little bit.
That makes real sense. And I think that having something like that that's quite clear, because like I said, I think that, and I know Andy, you're talking about the positives and the challenges, and I think, I guess they can be intertwined. Because some people might be listening and going, "Oh, 45 children in school, how sweet." I've had a class of 36. That might be your entire key stage two.
I think it's that different dynamic that says, how do you manage that? And how, with that, like I said, that flexibility that, if you've only got a small number of children in each year group, it is possible to attend to them, but maybe sometimes, you've got to talk yourself out of attending to them-
... and giving them a chance to go, "Hang on, I've got-
Yeah, "You can do this."
Absolutely. And I think that's key. And the challenges is, what we've found is obviously the subject leader. We've also, the downside of being ahead of five schools is that we've had five Ofsted inspections this year, and it literally felt like the phone was going one after the other. And maths' deep dive in every single one of them. My specialist is my subject leader. I've got two subject leaders for maths, but they've both, basically, they're across the federation, so they're based in different schools. And the Ofsted inspector couldn't get his head around that he was inspecting one school, but those teachers that were coming as subject specialists weren't from that school. And it took even the Ofsted inspectors time to think, "Oh, right, so you're not actually teaching at this school, but you're the subject leader at this school." Yes. But it works. And we did extremely well. We were exhausted after five inspections, but hey ho, I think we're the experts now when it comes to Ofsted inspections and deep dives, as they call it.
Your phone may be ringing after this discussion, people calling about Ofsted, "Help!" Yeah. Well, this has been fabulous, and I know we're going-
I know, Andy, you're just chomping at the bit, and Adam, to ask another round of questions to Eliza, but why don't we have you on, can we have you on yet another podcast, Eliza?
Because there's just so much to talk to you about. Thank you so much for joining us today, and ...
... we'll see you again.
Thank you for having me. It's been great. Thank you.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School Podcast.