Labour’s plan to focus on early maths is solid – gaps in achievement start even before primary school

Kids playing with numbers on mat

Politicians in the UK have maths on the mind. The Conservatives intend to extend compulsory maths education for young people until 18.

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This article was published by The Conversation.

And at the Labour party conference, shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson announced the opposition’s plans to improve maths skills across the country: a focus on primary school and pre-school education rather than post-16, with an emphasis on children learning the maths they will need for everyday life.

Paying attention to young children’s maths is a good idea. Evidence from the UK and beyond shows that children start primary school with varying levels of mathematical skills – and disadvantage gaps are already evident at this point, meaning that children from poorer backgrounds may not have skills at the same level as their more well-off peers.

The differences between children’s maths skills then remain remarkably stable over time. Children who start primary school with mathematical abilities behind the level of their peers will typically remain behind their peers throughout school.

To reduce these gaps, we need to act early. But positive change won’t be achieved simply by adding more content to the primary or early years mathematics curriculums. Neither is it helpful to push children to learn more complex mathematics earlier. These approaches might lead to children learning maths in a superficial and rote manner, rather than understanding the underlying ideas.

Primary focus

Labour has raised the prospect of creating a “phonics for maths”. Phonics is a method of learning to read that teaches children the sounds that letters and combinations of letters make. It is required in primary schools, and pupils take a phonics screening check in year one to assess their progress.

Although not universally supported, phonics has been linked to improvements in reading levels among children in England.

However, phonics is a specific technique for teaching word reading, while mathematics is incredibly broad. It involves multiple skills as well as different types of knowledge and understanding.

Even in early primary school, mathematics is complex. Children need to understand quantities and their relationships, to recognise digits and understand place value, to carry out arithmetic procedures, to identify patterns in numbers and shapes, and much more. It is unlikely that a single technique, as phonics is, can underpin this breadth of knowledge and understanding.

But in another sense, the parallel with phonics is encouraging. The phonics revolution was informed by research and developed from a better understanding of how children learn to read. This can and should be emulated for mathematics. Research evidence on the early stages of learning maths can help build a solid approach to teaching mathematical skills to young children.

Another feature of Labour’s plans is their aim to “bring maths to life” by using real-world examples: budgeting, exchange rates, sports league tables...

The article, by Professor Camilla Gilmore, of the Centre for Early Mathematics Learning, continues on The Conversation website.