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How to take Maths specialists from good to outstanding

By Ed Salton 

As many teachers have just finished the first of their INSET training days this year, it seems a good opportunity to share some of the lessons we’ve learned through our own training of hundreds of teachers and tutors.

This blog post will discuss the process and theory behind a successful approach to teacher training, looking at how one-to-one Maths training differs from wider classroom training. I will also reflect on how to provide high quality, individualised Maths tuition at the primary level. I hope it’s useful to those of you reviewing your own teaching or teacher training journey particularly when looking at how to work one-to-one or in small group interventions.

I've also included, at the end of the post, the three techniques that I've seen have the most impact on a teacher's practice, including mine. Pick one and try it out next week!

Self-direction and support

"The wisest school and system leaders have always known that teacher development requires investment and priority. Whether seeking to improve teaching or to bring in new resources or ideas, there can be no success without a deep commitment to invest time and resource to develop the expert practice that our pupils deserve. After all, developing great teaching everywhere is the route to educational excellence everywhere."
Letter to Nick Gibb from David Weston and the Teachers' Professional Development Expert Group (2016)

In my role at Third Space Learning, I am responsible for overseeing the recruitment, training and development of our Maths specialists from our tutor training centre in Sri Lanka. Given that these Maths specialists are teaching up to 3,500 UK pupils on a one-to-one basis for 45 minutes each week, it is imperative that each tutor is equipped with the knowledge and understanding to be the best that they can be.

While our teacher training programme has been developed for our own one-to-one Maths intervention, much of what we’ve learned is applicable much more broadly. In fact it can be summarised simply as:

1. Training tutors to want to improve and to have a readiness to learn.

2. Ensuring tutors have access to the tools and support to help them achieve the first point.

Can you improve a teacher or tutor?

We’re all aware of those – hopefully decreasing few – who continue to hold the opinion that ‘great teachers are born not made’. Well, opinions and anecdotes can be a good starting point to initiate a wider discussion, but thankfully we now have the evidence. The Sutton Trust’s (2014) study ‘What makes great teaching’ drew upon a broad range of existing research to disprove the myth, including clear steps that practitioners & leaders could take to improve their teaching. A recent (2016) Economist article is clear that ‘teaching can be taught’, but also that “[some] schools neglect their most important pupils: teachers themselves.”

How do you improve a tutor?

"The future isn’t interested in how you became an expert.” I strongly agree with this statement, in particular in relation to adult learners, who are by definition more self-directed & involved in evaluating their own learning. At Third Space Learning, we employ a team of over 150 tutors who are top graduates and have been trained as specialist one-to-one online Maths tutors to teach the Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 Primary Maths national curriculum.

Below is the process we use to transform Maths specialists into excellent primary Maths tutors.

Step 1. High recruitment standards

Every year we increase the entry barriers for tutors. In addition to teaching a Maths lesson & having a thorough interview, all candidates must complete two assessments:

1. A two hour English test that is independently assessed & accredited by the British Council.

2. The TSL Maths test assesses a variety of skills and has been specifically designed to test their ability at Mathematics (knowledge and skill):

  • To identify a pupil’s error or misconception

  • To identify the best way to teach a concept

  • To be flexible in ‘mimicking’ a pupil’s way of working that is Mathematically valid and yet may be unfamiliar to the tutor

  • To problem solve and then explain thinking

Step 2. Two weeks of teacher led tutor training in Maths and the National Curriculum

This highly intense training focuses on UK Maths pedagogy (KS1-3), which is in line with the National Curriculum. Tutors are guided on how to develop three key skills in each of their pupils: mathematical fluency, reasoning and problem solving.

Throughout this, we place a strong emphasis as educational specialists on developing the growth mindset of our pupils (and crucially – our tutors).

Step 3. Effective tutor assessment

At Third Space; through many iterations, we have developed the tools & skills to be able to consistently assess tutor quality at both the individual tutor and whole tutor population level. A key part of the effectiveness of this is our emphasis on triangulation of multiple sources of data (2014, Sutton Trust Report):

a) Every session is recorded – tutors use this to identify their own learning needs

b) Each tutor has one session (randomly) evaluated per week against our session criteria (based on OFSTED & work with the IOE), leading to each tutor being given up to 3 strengths and 3 areas for improvement. This is followed-up by a 10-15 minute face-to-face feedback session between the tutor and their ‘Academic Counsellor’

c) TSL use the macro data from these evaluations (session observations) to identify the training needs of each tutor on a weekly basis

Step 4: Tailored ongoing training

As a teacher, I wish I’d had the immediate access to the CPD tools & support that our Maths tutors enjoy on a daily basis. Part of my school based role was to help oversee the performance management and appraisal of staff such as observations, book trawls and academic results. All played a part, but as teachers & leaders, we never really felt fully confident in the efficacy of the processes we’d designed. Were we really able to give the timely individual support that all of our hard-working colleagues deserved?

Through my work alongside our tutor trainers; I’ve had the opportunity to experience delivering several Third Space sessions. The instant access to the recording of my sessions really helped me to be honest about my own teaching practice and identify areas for improvement (e.g. reduce teacher talking time).

Step 5: Weekly schedule of training

The clue’s in the name – CPD should be continuous. The mistake that so many institutions make is to introduce it on one-off days or sessions that are then forgotten a few weeks later. We have, therefore, made a deliberate effort to build in a weekly programme of team training that is completed by every one of our tutors. Here’s our weekly schedule:

Monday & Tuesday

Academic Counsellors lead delivery of training to small teams of tutors on key pedagogy topics identified from the 100s of session observations conducted each week.


Reserved for self-evaluation/reflection. Tutors watch their own sessions, guided by a Third Space Learning online reflective journal.

Thursday & Friday

Group peer evaluations. Each individual team member listens to the same session and evaluates it using TSL’s criteria. They then sit together as a group and discuss the session/learning (not the tutor).

Expert tips: The low cost, high impact techniques that will make a real difference to your practice

As lifelong learners, we are constantly looking to improve our impact on the pupils we teach. These are my top three tips for what has made the most difference to me. I'd love to know yours. 

1. Consider recording one of your lessons (with appropriate permission).
Actors & Elite athletes have used this technique for years.  5-10 mins is more than enough to start with (even recording just the audio is powerful). Checkout Bill Gates’ (2013) TED Talk: ‘Teachers need real feedback'. 
Relatively low tech solution: Use your smartphone’s recording function. 
High tech solution: Iris Connect specialises in recording for education and has a good reputation (although we have no personal experience or affiliation).

2. Encourage informal peer-observations (20 minutes)
Use a positive template (‘surplus model’ – focusing on the learning). Start small - maybe with a friendly colleague.

3. Triangulate your sources
Pupil feedback must always be put into the right context but it can be a valuable element to your teaching. Whatever works for you is best. 
Low tech solution: Post it notes placed on the door as pupils leave.
High tech solution: Try out Socrative which includes solutions to get pupil feedback (& pose questions).

Finally, I've always found it invaluable to have a template to follow when undertaking peer observation, so I've included here the Peer Lesson Observation Form that I've used many times both in school, and as a teacher trainer. 

Free resource: Download Peer Lesson Observation Form 

If you have any questions about our recruitment, training process or tutors, or if you’ve got tips about what’s worked in your training schemes get in touch and we’ll include them below:

Further reading

For anyone interested or involved in teacher training, we strongly recommend the latest Standard for teachers' professional development (published July 2016) from the Teachers' Professional Development Expert Group. 

Pupil struggling with maths

Do your pupils struggle with Maths?

Our 1-to-1 Maths interventions help struggling pupils become confident mathematicians.

Year 3, 4 & 5 Catch Up
Year 6 SATs Foundation

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