Learn how we can close the maths gap with effective provision and intervention from former specialist maths teacher, Louise Pennington.

In 2009, Ann Dowker published a report entitled ‘What Works for Children with Mathematical Difficulties?’ It was significant, particularly for me in my role as a Local Authority Specialist Teacher for Maths Difficulties, as it provided a somewhat independent research review of the interventions available in the noughties, whilst also detailing common mathematical difficulties and the principles of successful intervention.1

Fast forward to 2022, and the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Report Improving Mathematics in Key Stages 2 and 3 draws many parallels, highlighting similar issues and solutions, particularly around assessment and intervention. The correlation between low economic backgrounds and underachievement in maths was clearly stated by Dowker1 and is reflected in the recommendations of the EEF’s report, where it highlights ways to help schools break the link between family income and educational attainment.2

However, despite striking similarities within these reports, the 13 years between them have not seen schools idly sitting by, doing nothing for children who find maths difficult. Schools have focused more on identifying and addressing difficulties, using proven programmes such as Numbers Count and the Numicon Intervention Programme.

So, why does an attainment gap in maths persist, close to 20 years after Dowker’s first report?

The stark reality

Under-achievement in maths is not solely concentrated in lower economic status communities, but there is a strong correlation. The EEF noted that over half of pupils eligible for free school meals the previous year did not achieve expected levels in maths.2 One in five children may experience difficulty in learning at some point and there are many reasons for this in maths, including but not limited to: changing curricula and testing goal posts, culture and societal views, missed learning, curriculum design, special educational needs, and our teaching of the subject.

The stark reality is that around 175,000 young people fail their maths GCSE every year.

With the resit pass rate of around 20%, many repeat the exam numerous times and continue to fail. Within this cycle, the chance of passing reduces with every resit, leaving the 18-24 age group the most maths anxious.3

Returning to my question, ‘Can we close the maths gap?’ my response is a firm ‘yes’. I have seen this happen many times in my 13 years working with schools. Admittedly, for a small percentage, it is not always possible, despite appropriate intervention. Targeted teaching here needs to focus on functional skills so as not to leave these children vulnerable in later life.

How can schools close the maths gap?

One commonality for schools on a journey to improve maths attainment is a relentlessly positive attitude to maths and a supportive culture. They know their curriculum and students well and have invested time and effort into staff training to improve confidence and skills, supported with quality resources. Adaptive teaching in real time for the whole class is in place, addressing each child’s needs and ensuring they receive appropriate challenge within a more inclusive classroom. Errors and misconceptions are dealt with in the moment and children receive targeted support and timely feedback. This is their universal offer, and it is consistent. They have secured Quality First Teaching – high-quality, Wave 1 provision – and this reduces their need to intervene.

Building strong relationships with parents and addressing the wider societal issues around maths is also important.

Parents, unsurprisingly, have been found to have a powerful influence on children’s maths achievements and motivation.4 Research also found that when mothers told their daughters they were not good at maths at school, their daughter’s achievement immediately declined.5 Maloney et al. also found that levels of parental anxiety around maths is more influential than their actual maths knowledge.6

Top Tips

  1. Use manipulatives and representations as a purposeful scaffold for learning.
  2. Build and strengthen in the moment, give effective feedback.
  3. Identify maths difficulties as early as possible and intervene quickly and appropriately.
  4. Audit staff skills and views on mathematics and collectively work on improving this.
  5. Develop a whole-school culture of positivity around maths and ensure parents, staff and students are all on board.

Working in waves

Another element of successful provision is the acknowledgement that high-quality, inclusive teaching may not meet all learners’ needs, and this leads to the bolstering of Quality First Teaching with a second wave of provision. This is focused on gap teaching and addressing errors and misconceptions to diminish the attainment gap between the child/ children and age-related expectation. This is a timely intervention that includes post-teaching of concepts/procedures, fluency of key facts etc. These small group sessions of 4-6 students, should be additional to whole-class maths sessions. For children with persistent difficulties or who do not respond to the Wave 2 so-called ‘catch up’ measures, and those working significantly below age-related expectations, a third wave of intervention may be necessary. This individual or small group (1:2) intervention works at a slower pace but maintains high expectations of appropriate progress. Wave 3 intervention is tailored and is the result of careful diagnostic assessment. It needs to be delivered by a suitably trained TA or teacher. Again, this should happen in addition to and not instead of whole-class maths lessons and, where possible, should be linked to the class focus. Any materials used in the intervention should be an integral part of whole-class lessons to maximise impact, ensure skills transfer and embed new learning. Sessions should be short (15-40 minutes depending on age and concentration levels), regular (ideally three times a week), and time limited (to an optimum 8-12 weeks), after which, attainment should be closely monitored for a couple of terms. Closing the maths gap is not easy, but we owe it to the 175,000 students who annually fail their GCSE, to do our best.

References

  1. Dower, A. D. (2009). What works for children with mathematical difficulties? The effectiveness of intervention schemes. DCSF
  2. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/educationevidence/ guidance-reports/maths-ks-2-3. 
  3. https://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/news/nationalnumeracy- comment-prime-minister-rishi-sunaks-maths-18-policy
  4.  Koutsoulis, M. K., & Campbell, J. R. (2001). Family processes affect students’ motivation, and science and math achievement in Cypriot high schools. Structural Equation Modeling, 8(1), 108–127.
  5. Eccles, J. S., & Jacobs, J. E. (1986). Social Forces Shape Math Attitudes and Performance. Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 11, 367-380.
  6. Maloney, E. A., Ramirez, G., Gunderson, E. A., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2015). Intergenerational effects of parents’ math anxiety on children’s math achievement and anxiety. Psychological Science, 26(9), 1480–1488.

Author

  • Louise Pennington

    Louise is the professional development lead at Oxford University Press. With a background in primary teaching and special needs, Louise was a SENCO, member of SLT and later a specialist teacher for maths difficulties, leading the Local Authority SEND Team. Louise is an advocate for purposeful, subject-specific talk and the use of manipulatives in mathematics.
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