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Episode 86: Scheme of Work

Sloppy symphonies, Meddling politicians, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam look at scheme of works with special guest Emma Potter. Does a scheme of work open up more time for teachers? What’s the difference between planning and preparation? Plus, Adam emphasises the importance of not leaving a child’s learning opportunity to chance.

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Profile of Andy Psarianos expert educational podcaster.

Andy Psarianos


Andy was one of the first to bring maths mastery to the UK as the founder and CEO of the independent publisher: Maths — No Problem! Since then, he’s continued to create innovative education products as Chairman of Fig Leaf Group. He’s won more than a few awards, helped schools all over the world raise attainment levels, and continues to build an inclusive, supportive education community.
Profile of Adam Gifford expert educational podcaster.

Adam Gifford

In a past life, Adam was a headteacher, and the first Primary Maths Specialist Leader in Education in the UK. He led the NW1 Maths Hub’s delivery of NCETM’s Professional Development Lead Support Programme before taking on his current role of Maths Subject Specialist at Maths — No Problem!
Profile of Robin Potter expert educational podcaster.

Robin Potter

Robin comes to the podcast with a global perspective on parenting and children’s education. She’s lived in ten different countries and her children attended school in six of them. She has been a guest speaker at international conferences, sharing her graduate research on the community benefits of using forests for wellness. Currently, you’ll find Robin collaborating with colleagues and customers in her role as Head of Community Engagement at Fig Leaf Group, parent company of Maths — No Problem!

Special guest instructor

Profile of Emma Potter expert educational podcaster.

Emma Potter

Emma is an experienced class teacher and senior leader. She is a Vice Principal at Cheam Park Farm Primary and teaches in year 6. Emma is currently Maths Director for the trust and has a passion for all learners to enjoy maths and that they can see the benefit of it in the real world. Emma brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in the teaching and learning of maths and is constantly striving for excellence for all learners, regardless of ability. Emma is known for her enthusiasm in using the CPA approach (Concrete - Pictorial - Abstract) which incorporates her great love of using partner talk and manipulatives to create a buzz of learning which promotes excellent progress for all.

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Podcast Transcription

Andy Psarianos

Hi. I'm Andy Psarianos.

Robin Potter

Hi. I'm Robin Potter.

Adam Gifford

Hi. I'm Adam Gifford.

Andy Psarianos

This is the School of School Podcast.

Welcome to the School of School Podcast.

Robin Potter

The Maths — No Problem! Annual conference is back. Join us in London this November. World renowned speakers and experts will gather to discuss maths mastery in the post pandemic world. Be part of the conversation. Visit for details.

Welcome back to another episode of the School of School Podcast. I'm Robin. I am here with the usual suspects, Adam and Andy, but we have a special guest today.

I know, people, you may think that we're related because we have the same last name, and maybe some way, somehow we are, but not that we're aware of. Our guest today is Emma Potter. She's a very experienced class teacher and senior leader, but I'll let her share a little bit more about herself.

Welcome, Emma.

Emma Potter

Thank you so much. I'd forgotten that we even had the same surname. I'd forgotten that connection.

Robin Potter

How could you forget that?

Emma Potter

I know. The saying, "Like Harry Potter, only better." It's good to be here.

Basically, my name is Emma Potter. I am a year six teacher, first and foremost, at a school called Cheam Park Farm Primary, where I'm also the vice principal. That is part of the LEO Academy Trust, where I am a maths director. I do things like going into schools, and supporting their school improvement in maths, as well as helping to lead Cheam Park Farm as well.

One of the things I'm really passionate about is teaching and learning. I lead on teaching and learning at Cheam Park Farm as well. That is just another thing that I do. Yes. I am incredibly busy, but I love all parts of my job. I just love working with children and making a difference for children as well. I think that's really important to say.

Robin Potter

You are so busy, so I'm glad that you are passionate about your work. It shows in everything you do.

Today, we're going to talk about benefits of using a scheme of work. Emma, I know you have some knowledge about this, so why don't you start us off?

Emma Potter

I think that sometimes people are worried about using a scheme of work. I know that in previous schools I've worked, that's what they're worried about is actually buying something in they feel that might deskill their teachers.

I actually would argue that the scheme of work, especially Maths — No Problem! ... As you know, I am a huge fan. Cannot love it any more than I do. Actually, Maths — No Problem! gives you the trust. Actually, what you are delivering is high quality every time.

At Cheam Park Farm, we're a four form entry school. We have 120 children in each year group. As a leader, and I suppose parents, they want them to have the same offer, whichever class they're in. You shouldn't be disadvantaged because you're in a different class. I feel like schemes help to support that, because it then frees up teachers for their workload. Actually, you've given them the tools to be able to support their maths teaching.

Obviously, we don't call it a Maths — No Problem! lesson. We call it maths, because maths is what we're learning, and Maths — No Problem! is the vehicle in which we are getting to our end goal.

I just love it. I love the fact that it promotes consistency. I love everything about it.

Andy Psarianos

Emma, thank you for saying those wonderful things. It's nice to hear that. It's nice to hear it because there's a funny thing in the world of education. One of them is just that people are often suspicious about commercial organisations, because they feel that a commercial organisation is somehow linked to the devil, because their sole purpose is to make money or whatever the case may be. So they automatically get very suspicious about an organisation.

I don't think that that's always ... I think sometimes it's probably true, but the reality is is that the people who make these things, they really, really want ... They're on the same journey as you. They're on the same journey as the kids. They really want to make the best things that they possibly can.

We work tremendously hard at finding those passionate, knowledgeable people who can be on that journey with us, and then taking all that expertise, and focusing it on making something like a scheme of work. It's not an easy task. It takes years and years and years and years of experience, and work, and questioning, and reviewing, and going over, and so on and so forth, to make those things.

So it's always a bit sad when your initial response is, "Here we go. Somebody's trying to sell me something." Yeah. It'd be great if people didn't have to pay for stuff, but that's, unfortunately, not how the world works. We have a lot of staff who deserve to get paid, and have lives and have families to feed as well. That's why things cost money.

But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about a scheme of work. What is a scheme of work? Well, in essence, it's what do you teach, in what order, and why do you do it that way. What's involved in creating something like that, and how should it be used?

If we talk merely about the benefits, I think the benefits are that if you do a really, really good job of creating a scheme of work, and you stick to it, it's going to give the end result that you're looking for. That's the benefit of it, I think, if you were to try to sum it up.

Adam, I know how much time you spend worrying about this. I know how much time I spend worrying about it. Give us some insight. What are some of the steps in the process of coming up with a good scheme of work? Why should schools not treat this lightly?

Adam Gifford

Okay. Two parts.

Very easy to say the amount of effort, and thought, and energy, and research, and learning, and collaboration that might go into a single question is massive. Because at the end of the day, you're giving children a chance to learn something once.

Today, a child went to school. They did a lesson in one of your schools, Emma. They were looking at a page in the book that they may not revisit again. They're never going to get this day back, ever. It's gone.

The one thing that we can't do in schools, we can't create more time. It's too precious. It's far too precious. These kids get one shot every time they sit down.

That doesn't mean that they may not get it, and they may not understand it, and it may have to be revisited. It's the enormity of that, to get it right, to give that child the best possible chance, is overwhelming or it's huge, because that is what we're doing. That's the seriousness in which it should be taken. That's the seriousness in which all of us should be teaching. It's just too precious.

In order to get it right, there's a lot of very, very clever people involved. The wealth of experience is massive, and we need them all, because to get it right at that level is incredibly challenging.

I think therein lies the danger in schools. I used to get into a lot of schools, at least hundreds. I don't know what I'm up to, but a lot, a lot, a lot. What always used to make me very nervous was a half finished conversation that I've had with so many head teachers and school leaders, which is, "We don't do schemes of work. No, no. We don't do schemes around here."

The reason why it's a half finished conversation is that they never finish with, "Well, what do you do?" Because if I just have to go in on my own, I know where most teachers will go. They go to the internet. Where's the quality assurance? Well, you haven't got any. It's luck of the draw. You're just going to have to take whatever's most accessible at that point, the most printable, most kind of on the same page. There's no quality assurance, but it's almost as if that's better than something that has been incredibly well written.

I think therein lies the problem is that it's like, "Well, everyone's professionals. Everyone's this."

Well, I couldn't be trusted to write a symphony. I couldn't be, because I don't have the expertise. If someone says to me, "No. Just go and do it. We don't believe in sheet music for a symphony around here. Just get Adam on the job, and go and do it." Can I? What a joke. It would be utterly irresponsible.

Yet, this occurs. Like I bring it back to. You give that one child in one of your schools today ... How could you seriously ... How could you possibly? It fires me up, but how could you possibly not take that seriously?

Andy Psarianos

Plus also, it frees up your teacher to do what they're supposed to do, which is teach, not write content, and do research and all that kind of stuff. Yeah. That's right. Teaching is hard enough. Sorry. It is hard enough to do well every day, day after day, without having to research, and find your own content, and/or invent it or whatever in the hopes that you get it right.

Because I think, Adam, what you said is really important. This is a high stakes game, maybe not for the teacher, but for those pupils, it sure is. You're not going to get a second chance. You might get a second chance to teach that year again. You might get a third chance. You might get a fourth chance. Maybe, if you're inventing all your own stuff, by the time you get to the end, maybe you will crack it and get it absolutely right. Maybe you won't. I don't know, if you're making it up, making up your own script. But why would you leave that to chance when the best people in the world are already working on this stuff?

It really angers me, because hey, look, I've dedicated my life to this. If you look around the world and say, "Well, who's really succeeded with this?" what you'll find is the tremendous amount of respect they have for the continuous improvement cycle over decades. They just continuously crafting and getting better. They don't mess with stuff in a big way.

What worries me about some countries, and Canada is maybe one of the worst, where the politicians come in and it's like, "Well, we're going to go back to basics. We've gotten it all wrong, so we're going to change the curriculum again, and we're going to mess everything up and then we're going to throw ..." They just throw this stuff around lightly without really recognising how critical it is to have, one, the consistency, but two, also getting the best people …

Politicians shouldn't be making decisions about how to educate people. They really shouldn't. Their job is to hire the people who know how to educate people. But unfortunately, they want to meddle. The UK's not perfect, but it's better than Canada. Canada ... It's atrocious, some of the stuff that's going on in Canada, and the various provinces in the United States as well. We don't need to get into the politics of it.

The manifestation of the curriculum, which should be written by people with the best intentions in the world, and then that interpretation of a curriculum into a scheme of work that will deliver that curriculum, takes a really, really long time and a tremendous amount of work to get right. So it's not a flippant thing.

If a school takes something that's well crafted and uses it, it's only going to help them. It's only going to help them. I don't see how it could possibly hinder them. But some people seem to think that it's their job to invent this stuff.

Emma Potter

I think sometimes it's seen that if you use a scheme, your teachers are lazy, because they're not creating their own content. But I would argue that, actually, like you say, you're opening up their time to assess, to really differentiate.

What I love about Maths — No Problem! is that each worksheet is differentiated. It builds each time. For me, as a teacher, I can look at, "Okay. You are just beginning to understand this. So your real focus is this beginning part, because I really want you to master this." Then some of my more able children, your expectation is you will complete this, and you will then be able to go on to apply to lots of different ways.

I think, as a teacher, for me, because I haven't had to sit for hours Googling, looking for particular questions, or perhaps ... Something that was really fashionable when I first started as a teacher was rolling a dice to generate numbers. If you rolled dice to generate numbers, especially in a division lesson, you were seen as really well done to you.

But then when I came to look at Maths — No Problem!, and actually, each question has been trialled and each question has a purpose, why am I rolling a dice? Why am I just making up numbers and hoping for the best, when actually, I can use something that, okay, lots of other people have trialled, but I can put my trust in the fact that, like you say, it's written by experts.

It's written by people that I know came ... When I was doing my undergraduate degree in education, was actually ... These are real people. They actually have been used by Maths — No Problem!. Actually I think, yeah, why not? Why not use the experts? Why not use deans or whoever? Actually …

Who am I? I can't make up this scheme of learning. Let the experts do it, and then I can use my knowledge of my children. I can use my knowledge of teaching and learning to use this tool to support me in my teaching. I think that just makes a big difference for me as a teacher.

Plus I'm not spending hours and hours hoping for the best, and then thinking, "Why am I teaching this in this way, when, actually, Maths — No Problem! have done that bit for me?" I will always shout about it.

Adam Gifford

I read something the other day that I think falls exactly to what you are saying, and I'd not really given it as much thought as I probably should have, which was the differentiation between planning and preparation.

People are talking about planning a lesson and getting right. First of all, we'll do this, and we'll do this, and we'll do this, and we'll do that. That's okay. That's a series of skills instructions. "This is what goes up. This is ..."

But the difference between the two is, "But am I prepared for that lesson. Do I know what to do when the learning stops? Do I know what to do when that child's learned it? Do I know what to do when they haven't got a clue what to do?" But the onus has been, traditionally, on, "Have you got your planning done? Can I follow a sequence? Can I look at all of these things?" which we may be able to generate, which looks like, "Yes. I can see. You do that at the beginning and," da da da.

But as someone who's actually going to have to respond in real time, how much time have I allowed myself to make sure that I'm equipped to do that? That's hard. That's really hard. Especially if it's a lesson that you're not so sure about. I need preparation time, not just, "This is a sequence of events." This is what I need to know in order to respond well.

Emma Potter

I think the way that Maths — No Problem! support you is it's got all of those what ifs. What if you've got a struggling learner? What if you need to extend someone? So if I am at the beginning of my career, or perhaps maths isn't my strongest subject, I've got that support. So my time can be spent on scaling myself up on those things, because those things are not a surprise. I'm not coming into the lesson thinking, "I wonder how they're going to react to this one."

It's been trialled somewhere else. They've got how, generally, children react, and the things that you need to make sure you go over, the non-negotiables and all of that. Actually, as a teacher, it allows me to teach. It allows me to use my knowledge of my children, and the children that this has been trialled with, to actually support the progress within the lesson.

I do think there is a gap between ... Because I think a lot of teachers spend a lot of time planning, a lot of time worrying about how it's going to go. Then, like you say, are they actually prepared for going into this lesson, or have you just got some maybes?

Andy Psarianos

Yeah. You're absolutely right. The point that people need to understand is that the preparation to teach a good lesson, which at the heart is those four questions which Adam was getting to ... What do the kids need to learn? How do I know whether or not they've actually learned it? How can I tell if they've learned it or not? What am I going to do for those who may come into the class and already know everything I plan on teaching them today?

Emma Potter

Because there's always someone.

Andy Psarianos

There always is. And what am I going to do if, at the end of the day, I've got a whole bunch of kids, and they're not where I need them to be?

Those questions, that is the bulk of what a teacher should be doing, is thinking every day about how they're going to do this really difficult task of making sure that 30 children have all the learning experiences that they need, varied in a way that applies to their particular place, where they are today or their particular understanding of a topic. That's enough for one human being to be expected to do 190 days a year. That's already a tremendous responsibility and a huge body of work.

Now, for that person to know whether or not they should be teaching this topic before that topic, or should you be doing your lesson on converting kilometres to miles in a measurement chapter ... I see Adam smiling, because it's a question we had just this week. Should you be doing it in a graphing lesson, or should you be doing it in a measurement lesson? Why would you choose to do it there? That's an important question. When should you introduce the number line?

Everyone seems to be really hot on the number line, these linear number systems. That's a big thing. Everyone's saying, "You got to do it, got to do it, got to it early." Yeah. Is that actually a good idea? When do you introduce that? Because it's critical.

It's critical, because if you think, what does not knowing how to count look like, and what are the barriers to that in reception and year one, not being able to ... trying to grasp these different representations of number, cardinality versus measurement versus ordinal numbers versus so on and so forth. What are the challenges to that?

How could you even expect a teacher to even be aware that those challenges exist, necessarily, nevermind what the best way to teach at that level? Wouldn't you rather have the experts, the people who have dedicated their lives to researching that, make those decisions, so that you can concentrate on hitting your daily target, as opposed to doing everybody else's job at the same time?

We're overloading teachers with stuff that we shouldn't really be bothering them with. We should be expecting that we're handing them the tools that they need to succeed, with an expectation that they're going to use those tools and succeed with them, and let them focus on the teaching aspect of their responsibility, and stop overloading them with too many suggestions on whatever the latest trend is, like, "I need to be using," I don't know, "rekenreks." It's all about that. "Now, I've got to change everything I do, whether I've succeeded or not in the past, because now, there's this new trend about this manipulative that all of a sudden I've got to use."

It's not helpful. It's really not helpful. Because it just keeps bouncing up and down. People just are …

Teachers don't really know ... They lose track of what's important. We should be talking more about teaching, and what the classroom should look like on a day to day basis, and improving that craft, because that's what we rely on teachers to do, and stop overloading them with stuff that's not necessarily …

Give them the tools that they need. Give them the skills that they need. That's enough. Stop trying to make everybody an expert in everything all the time. Anyway, that's my little soap box for today.

Robin Potter

You've got Andy and Adam all fired up on this topic. I you can see it. I'd love to hear your final thoughts, though.

Emma Potter

I just think it's just really important that teachers see things like Maths — No Problem! as a support. If you buy into it, the more that you use it, the more that ... If you're fully invested in using it, it's only going to enhance your children's education.

It's not, like we've spoken about ... Maths — No Problem! wasn't created on a whim. Nobody decided one day, "This is what we fancy." Actually, lots went into it beforehand. I think it's just, as a teacher, trusting in that process, but then not losing your own personal touch to it. It's using Maths — No Problem! to support you, to support the journey.

Actually, if there are things that you can add to it, then I'm sure that Maths — No Problem! would welcome the suggestions. I don't know if you're going to get a massive influx of teachers now thinking they know lots of different things. But things that work really well for you, for your school, shouldn't necessarily just be disregarded because you're bringing in a scheme like Maths — No Problem! But it is trusting in the process, and actually, you're not going to get it right first time.

I think that's really important as well, is that Maths — No Problem!, you need to invest yourself into it. You need to understand the training, but then also you work at it, because it is a …

I think Maths — No Problem! has a really good methodical process that you go through every lesson. Actually, you need to learn that. I think, as a teacher, you have to learn that. You can't pick up and hope it's going to solve every problem. You've got to invest your time in it.

I think that's what maybe the missing part of using schemes is. You have to invest yourself. You can't just buy something in and hope it's going to solve and save the day. Actually, it's investing yourself into it, and investing time, investing training as teachers and as schools and as leaders, to actually promote the good education that will come out of it as well.

As I've said before, I love Maths — No Problem!. I could talk about Maths — No Problem! all day long and still not get bored, just because I've seen the benefits. I've worked in schools without Maths — No Problem!. I've worked in schools with Maths — No Problem!. I can see the change, the change in culture, the change in language.

The fact that it always starts with a problem just is something that I absolutely love, because everyone can have a go. You can start at any level. You can have a go, and then you can start unpicking it together. I think that's really special, as a teacher. You get to unpick something with your class. Everyone is working together. We're all trying to get to the same end goal as well.

I think that's just really special in maths teaching, because that isn't always what maths teaching has been. It's been about your very clever children getting it and flying. But this one, we can start everyone together. That got a bit deep there.

Andy Psarianos

Yeah. That's great, Emma. Thanks. Thanks, thanks. Thanks for saying it.

Look, we're here. We want to work with schools. We want to help you. That's why we're here.

Thanks so much. Thanks, everybody.

Thank you for joining us on the School of School Podcast.

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