Part 1: Why Book Scrutinies Don’t Work…

Posted in Inspiration & Ideas

My confusion around why, when we’re all aiming to support high standards and progress in maths, ‘Book Trawls/Scrutinies’ remain such a popular approach in achieving this…

Part 1: Introduction: 

Book scrutinies do seem to have a place in English. As there will hopefully be a range of writing samples, from completely independent work to guided practice, we can gain a relatively accurate view of a child’s progress, their level of attainment and how effectively they are responding to regular teacher feedback. Making the same judgments using recorded mathematics, however, is very different story. 

Mathematics is a subject centred around noticing, exploration, explanation and proof. The written symbols are a purely way of capturing that thinking and rarely reveal the thinking and processing taking place. As we currently move towards maths teaching that focuses upon what makes us mathematical, involving proof, conjecture and generalization, we must encourage and support teachers in creating a far more effective balance regarding what is done, talked about and recorded. Practical, talk-driven learning coupled with effective use of construction using concrete apparatus, recording using pictorial images and finally connecting this to the written abstract symbols are all essential elements in building mathematical fluency . Using book scrutinies not only fails to value this but, far more worryingly, is actually having a very negative impact on the way teachers feel they must ‘teach’ and what children are being taught to value as ‘learning’ . 

Noticing the Problem

WHY are we monitoring and WHO are we doing it for?

  • To evaluate the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning in mathematics
  • To evaluate consistency across classes, year groups and key stages
  • To gain an accurate and valuable insight into areas of strength in practice and areas requiring development
  • To celebrate achievement, creativity and ownership from both our teachers and learners
  • To hear our pupils’ ‘voice’ as the key stakeholder. ‘What am I hearing from my teacher? What messages am I taking on board?’ ‘What do I see as important?’
  • To empower our teachers to constantly seek to improve by sharing reliable and valued feedback from the learners and other ‘expert’ voices (research, training etc.)


Listening to ‘Teachers’ Voice’:

  • Having books taken in by SLT to be looked at when I’m not there scares me
  • I constantly worry about what’s in my books and what’s recorded due to this fear
  • I value what is recorded over what is discussed and explored
  • There is a feeling of competition in school over how books look
  • Quantity of work is important 
  • I take photographs to prove I’ve taught something for a book scrutiny and I put these in every book as I don’t know which books will be taken (and also parents expect to see this now)
  • When I learn about new ways of teaching that make complete sense to me my first thoughts are ‘I can see how this could really make a difference, but what will the recording look like and how will I show evidence in their books?’. I now feel confused as I’ve seen a better way but don’t feel I’m allowed to teach like this’.

Listening to the ‘Childs’ Voice’:

  • Maths is only maths when you record it in a maths book
  • Using equipment is for people who aren’t very good at maths. If I can record maths without equipment I must be better at it.
  • Quantity matters and the amount of ticks and correct answers is most important
  • Using equipment is ‘playing’ and not really maths. Playing is something younger children do.
  • There are people in my class that are good at maths and people who aren’t and some that are just ‘ok’
  • ‘Being good at maths’ means it should feel easy. If it feels hard I think I’m not very good at it.
  • I can’t explain it; I just know it.

Listen. Question. Listen. Clarify. Listen. Understand. Listen. Share. Listen. Plan. Listen. Reflect. Listen.  

Are we really listening to our teachers and pupils? 

What are they telling us?

How does the National Curriculum and EYFS Framework ask us to teach?

Do all staff use the following to underpin every aspect of their assessment, planning and provision:

  • The Characteristics of Effective Learning
  • The 3 Aims of the National Curriculum for Mathematics (page 3 of the Maths NC)

What research underpins the approaches most schools ar adopting? Who are Singapore and Shanghai (amongst others) learning from?

  • Jerome Bruner
  • Richard Skemp
  • Zoltan Dienes
  • Lev Vygotsky
  • Jean Piaget

Some (big) issues with book scrutinies:

  • Over decades, monitoring practices have eroded teacher ownership and confidence. Fear and being judged has replaced a sense of professional passion and drive (regardless of existing good relations between SLT and staff). Workload issues leading to despondency, exhaustion, mental health issues and the mass exodus of many experienced staff has been the  unsurprising (and incredibly sad) consequence of practices such as book scrutinies (alongside others which can be discussed at a later stage).
  • Effective teaching is about planning learning journeys. Moving from ‘a line of enquiry’(NC aim 2) through to ‘purposeful practice’ and then ‘application and variation’. Medium term preparation needs to be primarily focused upon teacher subject knowledge of the conceptual understanding involved in this process and the steps to understanding. Short term planning needs to be highly reflective and responsive on a daily basis within this journey; focused primarily upon pedagogy.
  • What is ‘taught’ and ‘covered’ may have little to do with what is ‘learned’. Evaluation of whole school practice must always be about how effectively children are learning. (and not merely what is covered). Re-producing procedures that have just been modelled is not evidence of learning. Application and variation, using both conjecture and generalisation and an ability to identify when to use a particular procedure efficiently, is evidence of learning.
  • Noticing, discussion, argument, explanation and proof lie at the heart of learning. What is recorded needs to support a child’s ability to recall, reflect and expand upon a learning experience. This can only be done with the child present.

At this point we must ask ourselves as SLT….

‘Why have we not evaluated this before now? What other practices in school are we carrying out regularly that we’ve not scrutinised and are likely to have been initially inflicted upon us rather than being grown in response to what we want to achieve’?

Are we really listening to our teachers and pupils? 

What are they telling us?

Next time Part 2: An Alternative Approach to book scrutinies: What could we do to really meet the aims we’re setting out to achieve?

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