Enriching students' Maths experience at Ark Alexandra

Wednesday 8th June 2022
Sharon Rutherford

Sharon Rutherford is Head of Maths at Key Stage 3 at Ark Alexandra Academy in Hastings. She has overseen the running of Maths Mastery in the school, and as part of this, she has produced the resources for her team to support them in delivering successful lessons. Sharon has utilised technology to drive the students' engagement, which is part of a carefully planned maths curriculum. Sharon's story is part of our #ArkPeople series.

"I grew up in South London and attended a big comprehensive school. My least two favourite subjects were maths and PE. At one point, I started to do ok in maths, and they put me up a set, but the teacher was hopeless and unhelpful. When asked for help, he always responded, "ask the person next to you." I failed maths gaining a CSE Grade 4 (equivalent to a grade 1 in our current system) – pretty shocking!

"After I left school, I didn't go to college or university. I worked, got married and had children, and later decided that I wanted to be a primary school teacher. I got a place at South Bank University and wanted to focus on Science or English, but you were taught all subjects. There I discovered that the best bit was the maths. It was fascinating, and I actually enjoyed it. It was different from anything I could remember from when I was at school. I enjoyed it so much that I decided I didn't want to stay in primary education but move to secondary so that I would only teach maths.

"When we moved out of London, I decided I'd try secondary teaching and worked at my children's school as a teaching assistant – I thought, yes, this is more like it and studied for a degree in maths education at the University of Brighton.

"I joined Ark Alexandra in 2013, and I'm the Head of Maths for years 7 and 8. The way we teach maths engages the students because we don't just teach students how to perform calculations. We look at how maths is used in the real world, solve puzzles and problems, explore different ways of representing maths, and have a lot of discussions. We also use manipulatives in the classroom, which is more common in primary, where you use cubes, counters and different representations to understand concepts, and students have embraced this.

"Another significant difference is we have mixed attainment classes, which some might say is quite brave. However, I believe you limit student opportunities when you place them in sets. Mixed classes have made a considerable difference in our student's self-esteem and levels of engagement in both class and homework.

"We have recently introduced Sparx Homework and Sparx Classroom. This system applies artificial intelligence and algorithms to determine what level students are working at. After a couple of weeks, it automatically differentiates students and picks up things they're finding difficult, and every single question has a video – tens of thousands!

"Students have been super keen on both the homework and classwork product; they like the XP they gain and the maths games that pop up at the end of every section of work. Our homework participation has increased significantly – helped by class parties for the classes achieving the most XP.

"I'm proud of what we're doing at Ark Alexandra. The mix of Maths Mastery and Sparx has transformed our teaching. Higher levels of engagement have resulted in less poor behaviour. Higher attaining students are asking for much more help as they are being better stretched, and lower attaining students are seeing success in every lesson. We're also working with the Sparx team to help develop a classroom version, which is exciting.

"There has been some recent commentary on STEM subjects, but I don't think gender is an issue. I don't ever hear the comments made years ago that girls can't do maths, and I've never heard our students say it.

"Being at Ark Alexandra and being part of a network means we're always looking at what else we can do and exploring other opportunities. We have regular meetings to share ideas of things we'd like to try, which has helped us get to where we are. Our students have now caught our love and enthusiasm for maths, and that's wonderful."

Year 8 Student Flori Harris said:

"Before secondary school, I would find maths difficult and frustrating as my friends would go out and do more advanced maths, and I was mostly in a classroom with people who struggled more. In secondary school, I began to find that I was doing better than I used to. I have also found it to be more fun and enjoyable. My teacher always has time to explain and listen to me more."

Sharon is retiring but will be freelancing with Maths Mastery. We thank Sharon for all her hard work and wish her well.