Increasing the pool of male applicants to university

Over the summer we have seen the publication of two reports focusing on the gap between boys and girls in terms of reading and in the number of male applicants to university.  We are also about to witness a further decline in the number of white working class boys entering university.  Save the Children’s ‘Lost Boys’ report indicated that there is up to a 17% gap in attainment between boys and girls in areas with high levels of poverty.  King’s College and LKMCo report that there is a significant under representation of white working class boys in higher education.  The issue is cyclical – lower numbers of boys achieving expected reading levels leading to lower numbers of white working class boys applying to university perpetuating the number of boys heading for manual roles or worst still, unemployment.   As a consequence, there is a demonstrable impact on the aspirations of the ‘working’ classes and the educational outcomes of their children.


Save the Children and LKMCo both identify ‘low attainment at school for much of the problem of low participation in higher education’.  This problem has been known for decades, the Aim Higher initiative through the 2000’s did little to address the issue nor has the ‘widening participation’ agenda impacted on aspirations or achievements of white, working class boys. If the pool of male applicants to university is to increase it is self-evident that the issue needs to be addressed at early stages of a boy’s life.


Save the Children recommend improving early years provision – from birth and pre-school, investment in evidence-based support programmes that train professionals to raise aspirations, increase access and improve achievements preparing all boys to be school ready.   It is my belief borne out by significant evidence that every parent wants the best for the child, whatever the challenges, needs or disadvantages that is their experience.   However, some parents, and practitioners in early years settings might need support in achieving the best.  The Achievement for All ‘Achieving Early’ programme has impacted on practice in 60 settings in poor areas of the country, resulting in parents, boys (and girls) improving their engagement with reading and learning ‘how to learn’.  With parents commenting that they ‘now know what it is to be different’, it is clear that change can happen.


LMKCo recommend improving primary aged children experience of higher education – I have witnessed the impact of Primary Futures programme, which has done much to improve the aspirations of boys, impacting on their aspirations.  There is also considerable evidence cited in Sutton Trust reports on the impact of teachers aspirations for their pupils.  The ‘can do’ approach rather than ‘because of your background’ excuses.  Many of the boys who have broken through the class barrier will have done so because of the aspirations of their teachers, and their ability to find the greatness that exists in every boy, dig it out and share it with the world.


If we are committed to improving the outcomes for boys it is clear from both reports and other research that investment in developing early years practice is needed.  The increase in provision for 2 and 3 year olds is to be applauded,  it is now time to increase training opportunities at a local setting level, building on the fantastic commitment of early years teachers to improving outcomes.  It is only by bringing together parents and carers, teachers and leaders to improve their understanding of what can be done to improve aspirations, access and achievement in the early years that the next generation of boys will be ready to apply to university.

Professor Sonia Blandford – CEO Achievement for All, former Pro-Vice Chancellor Canterbury Christ Church University

Mastery maths: How does it differ from other approaches?

The way maths is taught in schools is always a hot topic; most recently it returned to the fore following the government’s announcement to invest £41m in training primary school teachers in the South Asian ways of maths teaching, colloquially known as “mastery maths”.

What is a mastery approach to teaching maths? How does it differ from other approaches?

Mastery maths is part mindset, part teaching methodology and part curriculum design and the unifying principle is that as well as being able to do the maths, students will understand it.

Mindset – gone is the notion that maths is for some people and not for others, and in its place is the belief that, with the right teaching, pupil effort and curriculum, maths success is for all.

In China, the commonly held assumption is hard work brings success. That’s the direction UK maths classrooms are heading too.


Teaching methodology

From the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics (NCETM)

“Pupils are taught through whole-class interactive teaching, where the focus is on all pupils working together on the same lesson content at the same time, as happens in Shanghai and several other regions that teach maths successfully. This ensures that all can master concepts before moving to the next part of the curriculum sequence, allowing no pupil to be left behind.

“Lesson design identifies the new mathematics that is to be taught, the key points, the difficult points and a carefully sequenced journey through the learning. In a typical lesson pupils sit facing the teacher and the teacher leads back and forth interaction, including questioning, short tasks, explanation, demonstration, and discussion.”


Part of the government investment will be to improve the resources at teachers’ fingertips, particularly the textbooks. During the Shanghai-England exchange over the last 2 years, English teachers have realised the importance of good question design and ‘intelligent practice’, something that English textbook publishers haven’t focused on so closely. Major re-writes of the English textbooks are on the way and teachers will be guided in how to use them to support their teaching.

In a typical Shanghai maths lesson pupils are often called on to explain how they’re doing the calculations – there is an expression over there that “the answer is only just the beginning” – so we are likely to see more of our children being asked to share their strategies with their partner and then come together to discuss all strategies as a class.

Curriculum design – in Shanghai the maths syllabus would be described as “slower” and “deeper”. That is to say, fewer topics are covered each year but they are studied in more detail. More of the nuances, representations and applications of each concept – as well as the connections between them – are explored in Shanghai so that their pupils come away with a firm mathematical understanding. In comparison, their English counterparts tend to be rushed on to the next topic before they’re confident with the current one.

It’s been a few years since it was deemed fundamental to know the basic number facts off by heart. Learning from South Asian countries (Singapore included), rapid recall of number bonds to 10 and the times tables facts is now expected by the National Curriculum.


The government’s £41m for the mastery approach to maths teaching in our primary schools is to be welcomed.

IG1b Numeracy Working Group -Maths mastery

Maths mastery has received a lot of publicity in the last 24 hours. Does it work? Will it put children ahead in the game? A few points of clarification are needed.


Maths mastery overrides the idea ‘people can’t do maths’ (Develop positive thinking).

Sensibly the Chinese believe that hard work equals success (Positive thinking + hard work = success)

Why single children out? The whole class approach, with teacher questioning and discussion (intelligent questioning + intelligent discussion = I can do), means all children work together on the same content at the same time. If a child doesn’t grasp the concept in the lesson, the teacher works with the child (one-to-one) before the next lesson.

Textbooks - give all teachers a deeper understanding of effective maths teaching, strategies and tools. Textbooks affirm what many teachers already know- discussion and conversation are a major part of maths mastery. As one primary teacher (involved in the pilot) said ‘before I would have said, you can speak with your partner if you are stuck. Now discussion is a focus of teaching and I will give a problem and ask children to tell their partner how they would solve it and then come together and discuss all strategies as a class.’

Children gain a fluency in maths processes and concept understanding. How? As the teacher involved in the pilot said, ‘I have moved away from ‘trying to get the right answer’. For example, there is only one answer to 2+3, but many ways to get the answer- draw dots, use cubes, doubles (3+3=6, so 2+3=5) etc. So whichever one you use is right. This is also good for teaching a mixed ability class.’

Maths mastery uses intelligent practice (think problem solving again and again-ask children the right questions at the right time).

Time - children develop a good foundational knowledge of key ideas and principles which are needed time and time again for problem solving.

And, very importantly, times tables and even addition tables are learnt by heart - the tools for problem solving are in the head in primary school, secondary school and beyond.

In ten years’ time, the English child may have more fluency on the abacus than their Chinese counterpart.


(Details adapted from the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics)

A positive maths culture: Closing the numeracy gap during the early years and primary education

The Fair Education Alliance’s numeracy working group is developing a publication of good practice early years and primary mathematics teaching and learning case studies. The focus is on the development of maths culture across the setting or school and how this strongly contributes to raising children’s achievement and enjoyment of maths. The examples can include whole setting or school approaches as well as effective interventions.

Aspects of maths culture may include (although not exclusively) such areas as clear leadership of maths across the setting or school, an emphasis on number sense and mathematical language and thinking, a well thought through curriculum and good maths pedagogy, including the development of maths through games, play and ‘real life’ situations, teachers and practitioners with positive attitudes to maths and the skills and confidence to support children’s development of maths understanding, enjoyment, motivation and independence.  


Call for case studies

We would like to hear from you if you have any good case studies where a positive maths culture in a school or setting has helped to raise maths standards for all students, especially the most disadvantaged. Please send your examples to:

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