Core Skills

Core Skills – Theory

We spent a lot of our time as a department talking about how the basics were very important but we never really quantified what we meant. We were looking at a new GCSE with greater depth in problem solving but if our students didn’t know the fundamentals inside and out then even if they could read and understand the question they wouldn’t have the working memory to be able to do it.

We have developed an approach that we have found has improved our teaching practice, reduced our workload and improved our marking and feedback.

We couldn’t just devote our curriculum to the basics but we needed a way of implementing something that would work around our scheme of work so that we could use the two to develop our problem solving. We also wanted to create something that would improve our assessment and feedback, by creating a clear language around specific parts of topics it would be easier to give specific feedback to students giving something meaningful as well as quick.

We wanted to focus on topics that we could break up into steps that are regularly used within other questions. We needed to keep the list small for it to be possible to secure confidence and fluency with these topics and develop a clear and concise language to discuss them with students and parents. The topics we decided on were

  • Fractions
  • Decimals
  • Percentages
  • Ratio
  • Negatives
  • Brackets
  • Equations

We quickly realised that we also needed a second tier for our students struggling to access our traditional scheme of work or a GCSE paper and we decided that the following topics would be our Stage 1.

  • Addition
  • Subtraction
  • Multiplication
  • Division
  • Number Properties
  • Place Value
  • Collecting Like Terms

It is important to note that these are not exhaustive and we did not design this to replace our scheme of work, rather to run alongside our regular scheme of work to ensure we are regularly seeing these topics interwoven with others. Our aim is that we become so good at our core skills that whenever we teach another topic we are able to quickly bring in the core skills to promote fluency and the cross-topic comfort that seems to be required to be able to access exam papers nowadays.

With my department we then broke up each strand and wrote a progression ladder for each; these are not meant to be a definitive list of all things related to that topic but the skills list needed for confidence in the mechanics of a topic.

Negatives Ladder


Core Thrills – Implementation

Once we had the topics and the structure it was important to create two things to make this useable; question banks and assessments. Fortunately, as I started butchering my way through some Excel code one of my department was looking for a project and he took over making the starter generator and has done a far better job than I ever could have! We used Excel to make the assessments, as we had the code, so that once done we could constantly create new tests with mark schemes as and when needed. This ensured that it was easily maintained throughout the year. It also meant that each time we were doing the same test with different numbers so students knew exactly what was expected of them so they could revise and prepare confidently.

We wanted the starter to be flexible to allow us to be able to tailor the starter for each class to the targets identified by the most recent assessment. We also needed to be able to print it out easily or be able to project it onto our whiteboard so we made two types of display.

Starter board

Starter worksheet


The assessments were designed for all questions to be one mark questions so it is could be easily marked in class to give the teacher time to focus on writing the feedback rather than ticking questions.


Students would write their old targets on and fill out the scores so we can easily see where to look and set new targets giving feedback where necessary. We have found that this greatly reduces our marking load and gives us meaningful data from which we can write insightful comments.

When we mark a set we’d keep a list of the targets we are setting and these become the topics we practise in our starters in the following half term.


More Frills – Scheme of Work

We follow the Kangaroo scheme for KS3 and the Edexcel scheme for KS4. The idea is that if you come across a core skill in the scheme of work then you use the time to progress up the ladder a few rungs and do more of the problem solving type questions. When planning a lesson you consider if you can bring a core skill into the topic. Area of a rectangle for example could be done with, fractions, decimals, brackets or you could easily bring percentages, ratio, or solving equations into it. Hopefully then as students become competent with those core skills it isn’t a difficult leap to be able to apply them with their new learning, thus making them more comfortable with working with several topics at once. This constant recall of core skills in different contexts addresses the need to answer GCSE problems that are cross strand or involve multi skills.


Four Quills – Conclusion

This is not a finished article and we continue to adapt and improve our concept as we are putting it into practice. I hope to write another post with our next steps soon. We are really proud of what we have created in our department. Defining and focusing on these core skills repeatedly has made our students more confident, whilst using the assessments and starters consistently has improved our practice. If you’d like more information or to ask any questions please get in touch via the contact section or on Twitter @misterrapley.