Wendy Jones: Why numeracy is key to equality in education


Literacy and numeracy are a pair. 

In so much of the discourse on education policy – and educational equality –  the two subjects are linked, apparently inseparably. They are written and spoken of so often in combination that you might be forgiven for assuming there is a single subject called ‘literacyandnumeracy’, with literacy often used as a proxy for both. 

The subjects are of course joined at the hip. Language development goes alongside numerical understanding; mathematical concepts and problems are usually framed in words. This is something that children confront from an early age. The children’s author Lauren Child develops the idea brilliantly in a new Charlie and Lola picture book out this autumn, with the characters playing with the meanings of ‘one each’ , ‘one between two’, ‘more than’, ‘at least’. 

The Fair Education Alliance has recognised this vital pairing, especially in its first impact goal – to narrow the gap in literacy and numeracy at primary school. The two subjects (a.k.a. English and maths – the terms are often used interchangeably although there is a difference in meaning) underpin all others and the gap in literacy and numeracy attainment between children from poorer and richer families is one of the clearest indicators of educational inequality. That gap increases through children’s school careers.  Moreover children who struggle with one subject are likely to struggle with the other – and with much else in life. It’s that familiar linkage again.

Yet there is evidence – fairly straightforward evidence from GCSE results  – that the achievement gap (between students on free school meals and others) is even greater in maths than in English. The reasons for this are probably multiple and complex – it’s an area ripe for more research. But one area worthy of attention is attitude of mind – or mindset. 

The Alliance has already drawn attention to this broad area through another of its impact goals – that of ensuring all young people ‘develop key strengths, including resilience and wellbeing, to support high aspirations’. Young people need self-belief, confidence and ability to cope with setbacks in order to succeed – and as the Alliance has reported, those from low-income backgrounds are likely to have less of all those.  

This is hugely relevant to maths. For maths, more than any subject, is seen (wrongly) as a discipline where you either get it right or wrong, where you can or can’t do it, where you fail or succeed. Why bother to go on trying if you know you’re rubbish at maths, if you don’t have a ‘maths brain’?
However there appears to be a growing interest in maths education and educational psychology in countering these prejudices. American psychologist Carol Dweck has shown the importance of a ‘growth mindset’ (as opposed to a ‘fixed mindset’) where believing that you can get better at doing something actually leads to your getting better at it. This has particular resonance in maths education and Dweck’s Stanford University colleague, education professor Jo Boaler, has long argued that everyone can do maths unless they have a specific learning disability. Alongside this is the work of UK-based academics Sue Johnston-Wilder and Clare Lee on the importance of developing ‘mathematical resilience’. 
With all this in mind, National Numeracy teamed up at the start of this term with Jo Boaler to deliver what was called ‘a week of inspirational maths’. Nearly 300 primary and secondary schools in England and Wales were given a set of five lesson plans (devised by Boaler’s youcubed organisation but versioned for the UK) with videos and other supporting resources, background explanation of the rationale, ideas for extending learning and access to a specialist forum. 
The project aimed to tackle negative attitudes to maths, offer students and teachers engaging lessons showing maths as an open,  creative subject and encourage children to think mathematically, work collaboratively and learn through their mistakes. Above all it aimed to dispel myths that some people simply ‘can’t do maths’ (‘the elephant in the classroom’, in Boaler’s book of the same name). And through setting the week in September, teachers and students would be encouraged along the right path – and equipped with the right attitudes – for the whole year. 

The children who fail at school are the ones who go on to have poor numeracy in adult life – with all the personal and societal costs of that – and regard maths as ‘not their thing’. Work to change those attitudes and break the pernicious cycle must be welcomed.  


Wendy Jones, National Numeracy trustee
September 2015