Power of Maths Spotlight... Improving accessibility for SEND learners

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Building independence through maths for every student
By Karen McGuigan

I was one of these children who just loved maths – even now I see it everywhere in life – but I know that’s not a talent most people have. Maths is so important. It helps us understand money, unpick practical things like our shopping and phone contracts, and make informed decisions.

Yet the way most schools teach maths, especially to learners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and additional needs, means many children are leaving education without the key maths skills they’ll need to live independently.

In 2019, after working on maths with my then 7-year-old son who has Downs Syndrome, I started a programme called Maths For Life with the aim of creating a differentiated approach to the current maths curriculum; one that delivers essential maths that all children need for life. I believe what I’ve learned could really improve maths accessibility for every child, whatever their needs and ability.

A pathway towards inclusivity

For my son, Lance, it was clear the standard maths curriculum wasn’t going to cut it. Like most children with SEND or additional needs, he needed a different pathway.

In fact, high numbers of children reach GCSE and will “fail” in terms of the national curriculum – 30% of learners every year – because that’s how our grading works. Why do we put them on this pathway of failure? Why don’t we give our learners an alternative?

The current mainstream pathway is all built towards that GCSE assessment. It’s designed for the neurotypical average student and is one set standard. This pathway puts a heavy emphasis on students needing the skills of memorising and methodology, with topics shared in blocks, repeated, then reviewed and built on – often with a big gap since they were first taught.

That repeat-recall model is not inclusive. After that gap, which can be as long as a year, teachers are frequently starting from scratch with children who have learning difficulties and/or challenges with memory. These children haven’t retained anything.

For real retention among SEND learners, that work needs to be done little and often. Without solid foundations, maths teachers are effectively building on quicksand.

Connecting with real life

Maths is all about connections. When we learn one thing we connect it to something else, and then the next thing. Neurotypical kids can make those connections without any problems. With my neurotypical sons, for example, teaching them how to put on pants meant they could then work out how to do shorts, trousers, etc, on their own. With Lance, I have to teach each item of clothing separately.

Neurodiverse children like him – especially students with Downs Syndrome – just don’t get the connections. They need to learn discretely, with teachers, SENCOs or TAs changing scenarios in each example they share. This means teaching every step in depth – for example, showing that triangles are shapes with three sides and three points, rather than just the one triangular object that may be presented to students in a lesson. Doing this will help every child better recognise shapes outside the classroom.

A key issue with the current system is that it overlooks the fact that many students, especially students with SEND, need to be able to see and use maths daily to be able to understand how it filters into their everyday life. When a subject is abstract it doesn’t match young people’s experiences. Therefore, they don’t see the need to do it, and they’re not motivated to do it. When this happens, the subject isn’t something that instils engagement in them – and when we’re not engaged, we don’t learn.

Think about the worksheets and workbooks that schools frequently use. The lists of sums. The dull repetitions. They’re really boring – even I don’t feel enthralled, and I’m a total maths geek! Many of these same resources have cluttered layouts too, making them a more challenging read for learners with additional needs.

Exercises based in reality, with building blocks that are practically-focused, can be much better for students with SEND. Engage them with things they do and make them practical. If they’re a swimmer, look at the maths of swimming. If they love football, explore the maths of the game.

Any resources you use with SEND learners should also be age-neutral. For a Year 10 student, there’s nothing more disheartening than looking at resources labelled as being for Year 1 maths. It’s really important we try and find things that match the level of learners without insulting them; without any risk of them feeling that “I’m a failure because I’m doing Baby Maths,” or “I don’t want to do it because it’s not suitable for me.”

A focus on understanding

Ideally, everything maths teachers do will come back to understanding – moving away from the idea that things like memorising or reciting times tables in under five minutes equate to being a good mathematician. Life is changing fast. We all have calculators on our phones. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is developing quickly. By understanding maths, students can use those technological tools to their benefit. Without understanding, that tech is rendered useless.

For students who have SEND, we can sometimes give better support by collectively working towards lower-level goals, allowing them to achieve solid foundations, and taking a more useful approach to building their knowledge up in stages. This approach involves considering the person, not the grade; giving them the relevant maths skills they need; even incorporating world-based conversations on things like saving, inflation, the economy and so on.

As part of this, a larger shift in the system needs to take place, in which educators are supported to offer different pathways – and, indeed, rewarded for doing this. Instead, right now, UK schools are penalised for offering practical qualifications like Functional Skills instead of the standard GCSE route.

Success from the beginning

In my opinion, a successful school is one that nurtures students, and sets them up for success in life, especially at secondary level. This can’t happen if we keep giving 30% of children a maths grade 1, 2, or 3 and telling them they must resit their exam because their efforts weren’t good enough. For me, school is about self-esteem. It’s about achieving something of value and setting them up for success in the world.

At secondary level in particular, we need more training with differentiated maths in mind. At the start of the secondary journey, a lot of students aren’t working anywhere near the Key Stage 3 level expected of them, so teachers need the skills to fluently differentiate their lessons with primary level maths.

We see it time and time again: children with SEND who have been successful in primary school reach secondary, then lose confidence. It’s because they’re expected to apply everything they’ve learned up to then through methodology and memorisation. Without actual understanding, everything starts falling to pieces.

Where we are most often failing is right back at the beginning. We are failing to recognise students who actually aren’t getting it. Who have probably sat under their peer level from Years 2 and 3. And when they fall behind there’s no intervention quick enough to play catch-up, because their classmates are continually moving forward. Once they have taken on the feeling of “I don’t like maths” it can be virtually impossible to get them back.

The benefits of being different

By encouraging that love of maths for children when they’re 7, 8, 9 and 10, we will equip students to be more successful long-term, making them more likely to want to continue doing maths when they’re older. To get there, our learners need to understand that difference is great. We all need different approaches. We all need a more open conversation about what maths is, rather than just right and wrong answers, and the concept of being either a “success” or a “failure.”

If we are going to bring our children to school every day, let’s make their education worthwhile – and deliver something for them that is of benefit for the rest of their adult lives.

Top teaching tips to make maths more accessible for SEND learners

  • Emphasise the importance of different approaches in maths for your students, moving away from the traditional maths messaging of “right,” “wrong” and “failure”.
  • Work on engaging learners early in their journey through education, so they’re more likely to want to carry maths with them at the secondary level.
  • Recognise that, for some students, memorisation activities will be very challenging. Instead, focus on achieving understanding with “little and often” repetitions that build steady progress.
  • Try to adapt lesson structures for learners who struggle to make connections, working on more in-depth building blocks that give them a more solid grasp of what you’re teaching.
  • Introduce real-world conversations around maths topics like inflation and the economy, to help teach learners about the maths that could benefit their understanding long-term.
  • Avoid densely-formatted workbooks and worksheets, opting instead for accessible, engaging alternatives that are not only easy to read but relevant to students’ daily lives.
  • Similarly, choose resources that are age-neutral, and don’t insult older learners with examples that would be more appropriate for young children.
  • Create maths exercises that channel their unique interests, building examples around hobbies and sports they enjoy wherever possible.
Karen McGuigan

Karen McGuigan is an author, and founder of Maths For Life, a differentiated programme for children and young adults with additional learning needs for whom the maths national curriculum is unattainable.  The programme is being used across the UK in all types of educational settings from preschool to further education.  It is currently being rolled out county-wide as part of a school-based pilot funded by Oxfordshire County Council to improve the provision for students with a wide range of additional learning needs.

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