Maybe we do need more maths – but, if so, we need more money for more early years teachers


At the New Stateman’s Regional Development Conference on ‘The Age of Levelling Up’ in Birmingham last month, Royal Society of Arts director Andy Haldane spoke on regional inequality both within the UK and regarding the UK’s position internationally, discussing a number of contributing factors to  what he referred to as “deep and entrenched” “spatial disparities”.

Of these – although also noting that the UK’s research sector is excellent – Haldane stated that “skills” are the biggest “structural Achilles heel” hindering progress in the UK, and that 10-15 million people don’t have the skills they need for success, a failure he places on our education system:

“Half the people leaving our schools loathe learning. […] Those most needing reskilling don’t want to learn, which gives us a very soggy foundational bottom.”

In particular, Haldane identified maths as an area of concern, describing British people as especially “innumerate”. This is a concern seemingly shared by the present government – PM Rishi Sunak has stated that in order to boost growth, the UK has to change their “anti-maths mindset”:

“We’ve got to start prizing numeracy for what it is – a key skill every bit as essential as reading. […] I won’t sit back and allow this cultural sense that it’s ok to be bad at maths to put our children at a disadvantage…”

The Prime Minister’s plan to address this is to force everybody to study maths to eighteen, a strategy that has been widely criticised and which would require absolutely “fundamental reform” to implement.

For one thing, the realism of recruiting and training potentially thousands more maths teacher might be questioned when the UK has failed to recruit enough trainee teachers for years, including a consistent shortfall of secondary maths teachers. In fact – as I can attest as a supply teacher – teaching as a profession is in a state of absolute chaos regarding staff, in part related to the ongoing cost of living crisis.

He’s spoken on his own difficulties learning and teaching maths in the past, and as a trustee of the National Numeracy charity, I’m sure that Haldane is well aware of all the myriad reasons for this apparent ‘innumeracy’. However, as someone who works in primary education, I want to weigh in with my own theory about where it might be coming from.

For the last few months, I’ve been working as long-term cover at one school, mostly as a teaching assistant in a Year One classroom.

Year One is the beginning of the National Curriculum and the absolute building blocks of all further maths study, including such basic knowledge such as an understanding of more and less and an ability to count to 100: maths interventions are absolutely critical at this stage.

I usually take a small group out to a quieter area of the classroom to work on maths skills, and we have particularly been focusing on subitising, the ability to look at a group of objects and know how many there are without counting, such as recognising the patterns on a standard dice arrangement.

Subitising is very important to making sure a child is able to do a sum efficiently, to understand that numerals represent values, to be able to conceive of numbers in the abstract – and it’s also a general life skill.

If you ask “how many?” and I hold up three fingers, you need to be able to understand without pausing to count out one, two, three. But it’s something that has to be consciously taught.

The children I’m supporting in these interventions already struggle with maths; most have special educational needs, and some also speak English as an additional language. They find the topic really tough. Holding up fingers to show numbers requires fine motor control, and valuable attention gets absorbed by figuring out how to manipulate the hand into different positions.

For a few days we tried to play a game of recognising whether four or five objects had appeared on a laptop screen; “four or five?” became too confusing, so we moved down to “three or four?” instead. I hear myself chanting five is made of four and one, four and one make five! in my sleep.

Most of these pupils still were only beginning to subitise by the end of the last half-term.

Even so, the circumstances should be considered. I have been the only support staff member in this classroom, and understandably priorities are split.

I also need to support during independent work, to do phonics interventions, to prepare for other lessons, to escort children to swimming, to run various assessments, to listen to children read, to read storybooks aloud, to do break and lunchtime duties: all just as important as maths.

I could argue that children, especially those with additional needs, should be allowed to learn at their own pace, which educators have been arguing is a major flaw of institutionalised education for now more than a century. But the more immediate issue is one of staffing.

My opinion is that our present education system is fundamentally shaped around placing a maximum possible number of children in the care of a minimum possible number of staff.

Studies have demonstrated over and over again that smaller class sizes and higher numbers of adults present in the classroom are beneficial for pupils – but fewer staff is cheaper, and in a situation where 90 percent of schools were predicted to be underfunded at the start of this year, that’s the deciding factor. (Not to mention that more skilled support staff would probably be available if pay was not so extremely low).

Fundamentally, my belief is that for UK adults not to be so “innumerate”, schools need the funding to hire more staff to support early maths education to a higher standard.

Yet I also think it’s fairly easy for a professional economist to describe the average person as “innumerate”. I studied medieval history, and it would be easy for me to accuse people of historical illiteracy of that period; it’s just the kind of thing you notice when you have specialist knowledge.

Similarly, my musician friends tend to find music education in the UK really inadequate – although this may also have something to do with the fact that this is also an area of funding crisis.

So it seems that all these difficulties have a single root cause: we simply need more money.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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