Maths is either a subject that pupils love or hate, explains Lorraine Barber, so how can we support those learners who don’t have a natural aptitude for it?

The impact of the way mathematics was taught to us in school has a great effect on our attitudes and enthusiasm for the subject. If mathematics was a subject you had a natural aptitude for, you may have shone in lessons. But what if maths was a subject you never fully understood? If you were taught it, but did not actually learn or apply it to real life, then your attitude may be somewhat different.

Bad at maths?
In Britain – despite being one of the more advanced nations – we are not afraid to convey our inability to cope with the subject. Have you ever heard parents boasting in the playground ‘I was never any good at reading when I was at school’? Probably not, then why is it seen to be perfectly acceptable to boast about a lack of mathematical understanding and to hear ‘I could never do maths when I was at school’. Negative, yet somewhat socially acceptable – even fashionable! I have often heard such comments on parents’ evenings, which appears to make a lack of mathematical ability and understanding sound like an intended or acceptable future outcome for their child. Instead, actively encouraging their child in the subject to develop more confidence and further their understanding would be more helpful. After all maths is not taught in school as we were once didactically taught; teaching strategies enabling pupils to participate in their learning, share strategies and apply their mathematics to real life contexts comprise a very different picture.

Williams Review
The Review of Mathematics Teaching in Early Year’s Settings and Primary Schools Interim Report (the Williams Review) published on 20 March 2008 recognises good practice in our mathematics teaching and seeks to build on this by promoting further professional development for our teaching workforce. It also highlights parental attitudes and recommends that parents play a key role in changing these negative attitudes to maths.

Maths is a demanding area of the curriculum and it is important that parents are supported in understanding the methods of calculation their children are taught in school. Here in Worcestershire, schools hold frequent parents’ evenings to engage parents in how their children are learning mathematics, demonstrating different ways to support them at home, and they are often provided with numeracy newsletters, website information and booklets on the progression of calculation methods in school. Activities similar to this are evident in many local authorities and address some of the concerns in Sir Peter Williams’ interim review.

Of course enjoyment and achievement in mathematics is not one individual responsibility, but is collectively fostered from our school environment, teachers and teaching assistants as well as the influences of our parents. Our desire to apply mathematics to our real life situation and further study in mathematics stems from the effective teaching methods taught in our schools, which foster an interest and develop a solid grasp of understanding of the subject. It is through the skills and dedication of the teacher that most mathematical learning ultimately depends, therefore it is of paramount importance that our teachers and practitioners have a secure subject knowledge of mathematics and how children learn mathematical concepts.

This seems to be clear in the recommendation from the interim review chaired by Sir Peter Williams. The recommendations call for an improved structure of mathematical professional development from initial teacher training to mathematics consultants – therefore improving the leadership and quality of the teaching of mathematics in our schools. It recommends more mathematical training for primary teachers to develop their subject knowledge with a strong focus on appropriate qualifications for primary and early year’s practitioners to have a genuine understanding of the mathematical concepts and language that underpin the play and exploration experiences those children have. Indeed it is vitally important our practitioners have an understanding of how children learn and make connections in mathematics and a call for increasing the number of graduates in early years settings is recommended. Their evidence demonstrates the importance of a strong effective early years education which enables children to continue to succeed through their school careers.

Continuing professional development
Questions over the requirement for an initial teacher training qualification of a grade C GCSE in mathematics have arisen from the review. But trainee teachers are offered only an average of 15 days of further education in the mathematics during their course. This is certainly alarming and indeed the quality of teacher training provision in mathematics and how it addresses the needs of primary learners would perhaps be an area to investigate further.

Further developing the concept of leading mathematics teachers alongside advanced skills teachers to enhance mathematics teaching is proposed in the interim review, and the proposal for each school to have at least one mathematics specialist with the knowledge and skills to influence mathematics teaching throughout the school appears to be a high priority. Building on this core of expertise within schools and across networks of schools would build capacity and hopefully influence mathematical learning over time.

Educational best practice
The review has looked at evidence on specific areas of mathematics education and has proposed recommendations for a way forward to raise standards of mathematics education. The importance of a young child’s ability both to read and communicate fluently and to count, calculate and work confidently with mathematical ideas cannot be overstated. The review therefore focuses on identifying educational best practice to enable learners to acquire this understanding and appreciation of mathematics. Achievements have been made since the introduction of the National Numeracy Strategy and its associated Primary Frameworks. Raising the percentage of pupils attaining level 4 and above at the end of Key Stage 2 to 77% from 59% in 1998, should be celebrated. But there are still further ambitious goals to achieve and (according to the interim report) what will be key to achieving these goals will be enhancing and improving the quality of teaching in schools and settings.

The eight principle recommendations which are under consultation for the next six weeks suggest a need for improving continuing professional development in our practitioners and teachers. This needs to be recognised as not only adding value to our young learners but also in terms of qualifications for our teachers and enhancing their career development, leading to tangible recognition in terms of qualifications to perhaps masters level with additional financial rewards proposed. This of course involves further evaluation of funding.

Effective intervention
The measures advocated are intended to improve overall attainment in mathematics over time, but there will always be a proportion of children who will need further support to develop mathematical understanding. Effective intervention is important in providing support for under-attaining pupils and the review considered and observed seven intervention programmes implemented in England. The report recommends that a qualified teacher should lead intervention with a single child, but in the research phase there will be investigation of the benefits of working with groups of up to three children.

Although recommendations have been made regarding the implementation of Every Child Counts, a national programme to fund intensive interventions, questions still remain over the timing of initial intervention, the length of intervention, the sustainability and the impact of the learning back in the classroom for that child, and some of the factors and causes that surround under-attainment are still the subject of ongoing debate. What is vitally important is the recommendation that before any intervention programme is implemented the child is fully committed and the involvement of parents and carers is secured to ensure the commitment and support is there for the child. What is still an issue is the integration of intervention and classroom teaching for the pupils. This it seems is being considered in the research and development phase of Every Child Counts.

Using and applying

The National Curriculum at present should continue as currently prescribed, but there are concerns over the using and applying strand of mathematics which is not given the prominence it requires. Although using and applying is firmly embedded throughout the recently revised frameworks it seems not all teachers are effectively using the frameworks. Children need to have opportunities to use and apply their mathematical skills and knowledge and where there is best practice, teachers are facilitating and enabling pupils to do this.

In conclusion…

Raising standards in mathematics through improving the quality of learning and teaching, developing more effective interventions for our under-achieving learners and securing further parental support is not rocket science, but how the final recommendations will be financed and developed effectively remains to be seen. The interim report is available on the DCSF website, and teachers have until the end of April to respond to the consultation.