Politicians in the UK have maths on the mind. The Conservatives intend to extend compulsory maths education for young people until 18.
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.
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.
A desire to give meaning to numbers and mathematics by building on children’s experiences is a good ambition. This can be achieved through play-based and hands-on activities, which involve children manipulating objects such as counters and cards to better understand mathematical ideas and relationships. It is also important to help children see numbers and mathematical patterns in the world around them: the number of red cars on the street or the shapes of windows and doors, for instance.
These approaches may provide a stronger foundation for future learning than focusing on using written digits or learning mathematical facts (such as 2 + 3 = 5) too early.
But care is needed to ensure that bringing maths to life truly reflects children’s experiences and doesn’t become a gimmick. It could even increase disadvantage gaps due to differences in children’s experiences, for example, for children from families who lack access to bank accounts or have never had the experience of travelling abroad and using different currency.
There are already good examples out there of how to teach in this way – such as the Mastering Number programme. Any curriculum changes need to be properly funded and developed in collaboration with experts in the field.
Giving children better mathematical foundations through engaging and meaningful activities can set them up for success throughout school and beyond. This would not only positively affect children’s achievement but could also change attitudes to mathematics for the better.
Changing attitudes to mathematics from the foundations upwards can help children and young people feel confident and engaged with the subject and see its value in their life, leading to more wanting to study the subject.