Closing the gap in primary maths

Catherine Knowles, Achievement for All and co-chair of the FEA's Impact Goal to narrow the gap in numeracy attainment.

To close the attainment gap in maths we need to start in the earliest years of education. The best way is by providing focused teacher continuing professional development in numeracy. We would not expect a surgeon to carry out a major procedure without training; driving a car without having had lessons could have catastrophic results. Why should we expect teachers to teach mathematics without being shown how?

It comes as no surprise that England has one of the largest gaps in maths at the end of primary school between their lowest and highest performing pupils across the developed world. The Education Policy Institute report- English Education:  world class in primary?- published 13th December 2017, which looked at the performance of pupils in England in TIMMS 2015 (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) and translated the data to the KS2 equivalent, showed that those at the bottom in England lag very far behind. For those at the bottom, a history of underperformance often follows them into secondary school. In our report, published by the FEA in February- (Achievement for All/ KPMG) Closing the attainment gap in maths: a study of good practice in early years and primary settings-  we highlighted the schooling gap of eight years in mathematics, between the lowest and highest achieving students, uncovered by PISA 2015.

We also showed that in some areas children are better served by some schools than others; in these primary schools, they are delivering a high quality maths education irrespective of children’s social or economic background. Primary schools in England that are getting it right have a whole school approach to maths. Within that, key features include children spending a short time with a teacher before the lesson to go over a concept they failed to grasp in the previous lesson and ensuring that children likely to underachieve are exposed to the same rich maths experiences as their peers. Negative attitudes to maths - amongst staff, children and their parents - are discouraged and the development of number and number sense is central to lessons; in some schools 75% of maths lessons are devoted to number work. Focused teacher CPD is a central characteristic.

The Fair Education Alliance (FEA), currently comprised of 95 organisations, is committed to confronting educational disadvantage. Following on from the Closing the attainment gap in maths report, the FEA annual Report Card 2016/17, placed great importance on CPD in numeracy for primary school teachers, as well as practitioners in early years settings. A recommendation for government, education practitioners, voluntary organisations, and universities, it is highly effective in stimulating improvement in areas where performance gaps remain high, enabling children to better reach their potential.

The large gap in England between the lowest and highest performing children at the end of primary school, will continue to grow over children’s school careers if maths teaching and learning in the earliest years of education are not re-evaluated. Strong maths skills and understanding at age 11 provides a firm base for success during secondary education. Focused and purposeful teacher and practitioner CPD in numeracy provides the answer.