Maths For Life

The PM wants to make maths compulsory up to age 18. The decision has sparked mixed responses. There is no doubt that maths, partnered with literacy, IS a key skill for life. Ideally, all young people should leave school with the basic levels of maths and literacy that enable good employment, suited to each individual. 

However, having observed and taught maths to many young people over the years, it is clear to me that not every person has what I call a ‘head for maths’. If the capacity for engaging with and understanding maths was the same for all, then the specific learning difficulty of Dyscalculia would not have been identified. Both Dyslexia and its mathematical counterpart, Dyscalculia, are specific areas of difficulty that indicate while the aim to include maths for all young people up to 18 is sound – it must be taught differently.

Let’s go back in time – to my probationary year. I’ve just finished teacher training. It’s 1979. My first job is as a supply teacher in a secondary school: allocated bottom set maths. Why? Because these young people are not considered as important as those in higher sets. They do not matter and are not expected to gain GCSE maths, so it’s okay to give them the most inexperienced teacher – me. Behaviour is dreadful. I cannot engage these students. They cannot listen, nor can they understand the concepts I attempt to teach them. So I try something new and radical. We play games. I spend hours at home, cutting up coloured cards, and writing on them to create bingo, pairs, snap and jigsaw games. It’s difficult at first. But gradually it works. I begin to feel their engagement with these ‘play’ activities. It’s a first step towards finding ways to deliver at least some of the National Curriculum skills and concepts that they need. 

This first experience, of me ‘cutting my educational teeth’ on students who did not matter then to the educational hierarchy, and still do not matter now to those with real clout to enable change, set the scene for my later specialisation in Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. My point here, is that this bottom set needed to be taught differently. Learning leads and dictates teaching – not the other way round. 

Fast forward almost fifty years and little has changed. The Warnock Report (1978) drew attention to the plight of children and young people with needs that require a different and staged approach. In 2022, I was researching my latest book, third edition of the ‘SENCO Survival Guide’, my twentieth educational publication. This book is now out, published by Routledge. As part of my research, I have observed maths (and other subject) lessons with bottom set students in a disadvantaged secondary school. It is clear that little has changed. Many cannot engage. Low level disruption includes switching off, and fiddling with stuff under desks- nail varnish, a rubik cube. Higher level disruption includes shouting out or throwing stuff around, to the extent that the teacher has to stop the lesson and threaten detention for the offenders. 

Surely Rishi  Sunak does not want such lack of engagement as part of his aim. He does not want failure. Letters to the Times, commenting on his intentions are mixed. One reminds us that many students fail their maths GCSE’s, so why bother beyond 16? Another suggests a financial reward for educational success in maths at 18. A third reminds us that the modern world needs people to have greater skills in maths, but that this valid aim should be part of a general overhaul of the English education system.  

So, where do we go from here? My view is that ‘Maths for Life’ is just that. It must be used  as a life skill. So academic for some – more practical for others? If young people are taught this subject up to 18, their engagement is paramount. It must also be taught according to need and level of ability, as well as aptitude. Firstly, we need to encourage a love of maths, through play and fun – and yes, it is possible to achieve this. Secondly, the speed at which different students learn must be recognised and assimilated into the differentiated pedagogy of teaching. Apparently we do not use the term ‘differentiation’ today – it’s now called ‘adapted teaching’. Both mean the same: holding on to each individual as they learn, not allowing them to lose faith, keeping self-perceived success moving forward at whatever pace necessary. Success is less about the destination – and more about keeping as many young people enjoying their journey, knowing that they will reach their destination at some point. Success is also about never comparing students against each other. Each learning journey is personal: the major principle of SEND philosophy. 

I have written a lot in my latest book about engagement because I believe this to be the key educational ingredient for every learner. Fifty years ago, when I experimented with fun and games, it was for my own survival as a teacher: instinctive. I now believe that engagement is the key and that subject teachers in every department, including maths, should debate how best to engage all children in learning. Fun and games need to feature strongly. 

So, I am not against maths teaching up to 18, if it is taught in a way that is engaging and worthwhile for each individual. Maths is for life – not just for school. 

Sylvia Edwards

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