New analysis suggests that the UK is expected to ‘drop’ three places in world numeracy tables by 2030, with a number of OECD countries set to overtake us.1
We believe that Britain can pave the way on the world stage in STEM. This will involve thinking innovatively about how to drive changes in perceptions and practice in maths, inside and outside the classroom. But this responsibility should not fall solely on schools. It requires individuals and organisations to come together across education and wider society.
At Pearson, we gathered leading influencers across education, maths, business and the third sector to debate and unlock contemporary issues facing mathematics today and outlined 10 recommendations in our Power of Maths report.
From showcasing the joy of the subject to busting myths, the five key steps for school leaders to consider when it comes to enhancing perceptions of maths and its teaching in schools today are explored below:
1. Look out for opportunities to collaborate
There can be many divisions in maths: between primary and secondary schools; between the competing demands of preparing for exams and developing a rich understanding of the subject; and between pedagogies adopted by the UK and other high-performing jurisdictions.
However, when it comes to maths education, there really is more that unites us than divides us. There are plenty of examples of people and organisations working together to transform the maths landscape. It’s important to look out for opportunities to collaborate, by capitalising on your familiar networks and looking further afield for new partnerships.
For instance, are your Specialist Leaders of Education (SLEs) making the most of the NCETM Maths SLE School Improvement Support Programme? The Teaching Schools Council and Maths Hubs have worked together to provide a programme that supports mathematics SLEs to develop their approach to maths school improvement, including aligning with approaches used in the Maths Hubs Programme.
Likewise, if you’re a Welsh school, the Further Mathematics Support Programme (FMSP) Wales collaborates with the Regional Consortia, providing resources and Professional Development to develop depth and connections, as well as the use of digital technologies in maths teaching.
It’s also about collaboration between primary and secondary. When schools work in silos this can lead to a lack of continuity between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3, and a negative impact on children’s progress. So, why not build in time for your trainee teachers to spend time across key stages spanning primary and secondary? What channels exist in your local area to encourage KS2 and KS3 teachers to share curriculum knowledge and ensure continuity for learners?
Thinking innovatively about how to capitalise on existing networks (such as cluster events or local network meetings) could help forge stronger links across current divisions.
2. Showcase the relevance and joy of maths
Maths is not just a subject studied in the classroom. It is relevant and important in our lives beyond the school gates, whether we are looking to understand our economy and natural world, engage with society or manage our personal lives. Maths can also unlock doors by giving us the tools we need to access new learning (including STEM subjects) or pursue a career that increases our earning power.
And yet, only 36% of males and 23% of females at Key Stage Four feel that mathematics is most likely to lead to a job in the future.2 How can we inspire pupils to love maths and understand the doors it opens?
Firstly, bust myths around maths. In your school, talk openly about the utility and creativity of maths. Maths is not about “right” or “wrong”, nor about getting to “the right answer”. Instead, show pupils that debate, discovery and creativity are an integral part of maths, rather than characteristics confined to humanities, and this makes maths fascinating and exciting.
You can do this in practice, by regularly integrating problems with more than one solution into maths lessons. Teachers should ask pupils to work on these problems in pairs or groups, then come back together as a class to debate the strategies used and solutions. Pupils will become engaged in their learning by thinking creatively and participating in rich mathematical discussion. Rather than fixating on the “correct” answer, they will be excited to reason about their solutions.
Don’t forget to use displays in school to showcase the awe and wonder of maths in the real world. Don’t leave these displays confined to the maths classroom – integrate them throughout the school to reinforce that this wonder is all around us. Twitter and Pinterest are great tools for finding and sharing ideas. You can also draw inspiration from the career videos created by Maths in Education and Industry (MEI), which highlight how learning mathematics can lead to brilliant careers.
3. Tackle maths anxiety head on
It is not uncommon for adults to be under-confident in maths. They’ll often protect themselves by pre-empting failure with comments such as, “I was never good at maths” or “numbers aren’t my thing”. Unknowingly, adults can pass on their anxieties to children and young people – leading to many arriving in their maths lessons ready to hate it.
Your parent, carer and teacher community can transform pupils' expectations and achievement in maths by modelling positive learning traits and a growth mindset. This may involve certain groups or individuals changing their own attitudes towards the subject, as well as overcoming challenges that are specific to your setting, for instance: a culture of labelling pupils as “more able” or “less able” in maths; under confidence among many teachers of maths, especially non-specialists in primary and secondary; and the high-stakes exam culture in the UK.
It is also important to build mathematical confidence among parents. At a primary level, teachers can give parents simple suggestions for engaging their child in learning maths at home, whether it is working on a puzzle book at bedtime, creating a maths picture story book or talking about shape while they play together. You can run workshops to communicate this or draw on Pearson’s Handy Parent Factsheet, which explains the importance of a growth mindset and how parents can encourage their children to be confident mathematicians.
It’s not just about parents, though. Are your teachers confident in maths? Providing your teachers with high-quality professional development that spans subject knowledge and best pedagogical practice will build their confidence and empower them to model a positive, resilient attitude towards maths.
4. Transform your culture of teacher development
We’ve seen how important teachers’ own confidence is in building a positive perception of maths among young people. In fact, teachers are one of the biggest influencers on our young people.
But, many maths teachers are not subject specialists (particularly at primary) and feel under confident in teaching the subject.
A 2018 Education Policy Institute report, The teacher labour market in England: shortages, subject expertise and incentives, highlighted that primary school teachers tend not to be subject specialists, while at secondary level, maths has the lowest proportion of highly-qualified teachers (with as little as 50% holding a degree in the subject).
Investing in training for teachers of maths is an antidote. With training, all teachers can build their conceptual understanding of maths and develop excellent teaching practices for the subject. High-quality resources, such as textbooks and teacher guides, can help teachers to consistently implement what they have learnt in the classroom. And yet, a 2018 International Summit on Textbooks report revealed that just 8% of teachers surveyed expect to be using textbooks – one of the best workload reduction tools available – in most or all of their lessons by 2020.
We understand that budgets for in-school professional development and resources are shrinking and this is a real challenge for schools. However, changing the culture around your current CPD offering could help leverage the expertise that already exists in your school.
For instance, a more collaborative and reflective approach to professional development has the potential to enhance pedagogical practice and confidence, by capitalising on the knowledge and experience of your teachers.
You can encourage teachers to observe, or even film, lessons and reflect on them with a colleague or as a team. This gives an opportunity to reflect on best practice, build subject knowledge and share new ideas. Although it may seem daunting at first, encouraging a more open culture around learning within the profession will develop teachers’ own confidence as well as encouraging pupils to think about their own learning.
5. Be brave. Innovate.
Can we expect children and young people to demonstrate bravery in maths if our schools’ leaders don’t do the same?
There is plenty of space to experiment with innovative teaching strategies in your school.
Have you considered teaching for mastery? The DfE’s Teaching for Mastery Programme has moved mastery to the forefront of conversations about maths teaching. Mastery is a commitment, involving a change in mindset, training and classroom practice. However, it has the potential to improve the quality of teaching and learning, and therefore the improvement in outcomes could be significant.
The big ideas of mastery, like learning in coherent and connected small steps, fluency, variation, uncovering mathematical structures through representations and understanding concepts deeply through reasoned mathematical thinking, can be applied across primary and secondary. These principles underpin good teaching and it is worthwhile considering how they can be applied in your school.
Next up: mathematical story picture books!
Research shows that by engaging with a mathematical story picture book, children develop an ability to visualise mathematical concepts, represent concepts in a number of different ways and make connections between those representations. This supports them in becoming more confident problem solvers.
Why not encourage your teachers to try teaching a new mathematical concept or a complex maths problem using a story picture book like Matthew McElligott’s Bean Thirteen? Or go one step further and make children the authors of their own mathematical stories.
Exploring maths through stories with younger children is a fun, engaging approach that ties into children’s emerging literacy skills. There could also be a place for this approach at Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 as problems become more complex and contain a strong narrative. Irrespective of your phase, MathsThroughStories.org is the perfect starting point.
Whatever you choose to do to inspire your pupils with maths, remember that the subject cannot be separated from the people who teach, learn and use it.
At its heart, The Power of Maths Roundtable, and the report it informed, is about celebrating people in mathematics: how people with diverse backgrounds and interests in maths can come together to collaborate and drive change. By harnessing this passion in schools and classrooms, we can all inspire young people with the power of maths – its utility and beauty –one step at a time.
As featured in School Leadership Today
1 Learning and Work Institute. 2019. 2030 vision: Skills for economic growth and social justice.
2 Department for Education. 2019. Attitudes towards STEM subjects by gender at KS4. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/attitudes-to-stem-subjects-by-gender-at-key-stage-4.
About the author
Alexandra Riley is author of the Power of Maths report and Senior Publisher in the Primary Maths team at Pearson. She leads the team behind Power Maths, a whole-class mastery programme developed in partnership with White Rose Maths.