Bridging the disadvantaged gap in maths for good

With thanks to Nick Hart, Deputy Headteacher at Penn Wood Primary School in Slough, for this really interesting article on closing the disadvantaged gap in maths.

Part 1

The gap between the attainment of disadvantaged children and all children may be narrowing but remains a concern. How can that gap be closed more rapidly and for good?  In part 1, we’ll look at understanding each individual child’s barriers to learning and creating a culture of high expectations.  In part 2, we’ll look at common maths specific gaps in learning and what to do about them.

Know the barriers to attainment for disadvantaged children

The reasons for poor attainment can be complex to address yet predictable to identify but identify them we must.  Any strategy needs to address specific barriers but not all children experience the same so an individual understanding which contributes to an accurate whole school analysis is crucial.  There are two ways to go about this.  The first step is to get to know freely available advice on common barriers, for example, referenced in the 2016 report from the Education Policy Institute Divergent pathways: the disadvantaged gap, accountability and the pupil premium:

  • Limited language, restricted vocabulary

  • Poor attendance

  • Mobility

  • Issues within the family

  • Medical issues, often undiagnosed

  • Lack of sleep

  • Poor nutrition

  • Poverty

  • Lack of family engagement with learning

  • Education not valued in local community

  • Low aspirations

  • Low expectations

  • Narrow range of opportunities outside school

  • Lack of role models, especially male role models

  • Lack of self confidence and self esteem

  • Poor social skills

  • Other skills gaps

  • Inadequate support from teachers and teaching assistants

At first glance, many of these barriers are outside the school gates and so can be difficult to influence.  However that does not mean that they should be neglected and there are many things to be done to negate against them.  Knowing the common barriers that have been pooled by a range of professionals is a starting point but they may not accurately describe the disadvantaged children in your school or classroom so what’s important is a thorough knowledge of each child and what’s stopping them doing better.  On my list of common reasons for the children that I have worked with that are not on the list above are:

  • Poor memory

  • Poor mental health

  • Lack of general knowledge / age appropriate experiences

  • Poor relationships with peers / adults

  • Poor organisational skills

These are still quite broad and if we’re to address them sufficiently, they need to be as accurate as possible.  Now if we think specifically about maths, from knowing each child in your school or class, you’ll likely see a combination of the following barriers:

  • Insecure knowledge of facts such as number bonds and times tables

  • Lack of understanding and fluency of standard calculation methods (both written and mental)

  • Poor understanding / quick forgetting of key mathematical vocabulary

  • Poor attitude to maths / gives up quickly

  • Loses their place in multi-step operations / tasks

  • Inability to make connections between areas of maths

It is vital that time is spent on accurately identifying and understanding the barriers that each child faces so that a coherent strategy can be put in place. 

Culture and mathematical knowledge

When it comes to maths, the barriers can be broadly categorised into cultural barriers and knowledge barriers.  Clearly, both need addressing quickly but there are some cultural conditions that, unless they are right first, the quality of learning cannot improve quickly enough.  Interestingly for the maths specific barriers, they can be traced back to one key characteristic – the child never really learned the basics of number and therefore everything else is suffering – lack of success leads to poor motivation, lack of knowledge means an inefficient working memory, lack of knowledge of vocabulary means that mathematical questions and discussions are a mystery – more on this in part 2. 

Our most vulnerable children need to be in school and paying attention, otherwise it doesn’t matter what marvellous teaching is happening.  If motivation to work in maths lessons is an issue, the danger is that in an attempt to inspire children to engage with maths, we lead with motivational contexts in the misguided hope that they stir that deeply buried love for maths, the child becomes motivated and then success follows.  It works the other way around.  Success breeds motivation and success comes from small wins where children feel good about doing something well.  If that’s going to happen, it’s about culture first.

In 2016, the NfER recommended 7 building blocks for success in the effective use of the pupil premium, the first of which is to promote an ethos of attainment for all.  Schools need a thorough audit of how children are talked about by adults so that any limiting attitudes, whether deliberate or not, can be addressed.  This is not specific to disadvantaged children or any other group or even subject; more so a way of checking and adapting practice so that every adult has high expectations of every child.  Here are some examples of language and practices that could indicate low expectations:

  • Lower / higher ability children

  • Bottom / top set

  • The ‘red apple’ table need to do something easier.

  • Seating a TA with the same children day in, day out so that they child learns that they do not need to listen to any teaching input – someone will come and explain it them after anyway.

  • An adult writing on a whiteboard and the child copying it.

These, and many other similar examples, cry out low expectations and, if combined with some posters on perseverance dotted around the school or dropped into lessons, are examples of a false growth mindset – outwardly saying that it is important to have a growth mindset but those words being undermined by limiting systems, behaviours and language.

In your classroom then, deliberate choices that influence culture are the first step to closing the disadvantaged gap for good:

  • Expect and explicitly teach great behaviour for learning so that all children pay attention to your modelling, explanations and instructions.
  • Expect all children to start work independently as a result of clear modelling, explanations and instructions, and scaffolding of tasks.
  • Arrange groups on a topic by topic, lesson by lesson basis – don’t assume that some children will find it difficult and need ‘easier’ work or that some will fly through it and need something ‘harder’.
  • Scaffold tasks so that all children can work at the expected level.
  • Remember that some children need more time to practice than others and provide it.
  • Identify before a unit of work children and the gaps in learning or misconceptions that they have.  Consider preteaching those children before the content is modelled and explained in the lesson so that by the time the lesson comes around, they are already familiar with it.
  • Arrange keep up interventions that happen on the same day when children exhibit a misconception or have difficulty with the work from that lesson.
  • Arrange catch up interventions for children that have significant gaps in their learning outside of maths lessons so that they do not fall further behind.

If the culture in the classroom is one where success is expected because of a purposeful environment and a teacher that has high expectations of all children, then that classroom is in a wonderful position to make the most of the best that is known about how children learn.  In part 2, we’ll look at key strategies for helping children to understand and remember the fundamentals of maths so that the disadvantaged gap and be closed for good.




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