Report looks at primary school mathematics

07 May 2009

The Public Accounts Committee today publishes a report examining mathematics performance in maintained primary schools in England.

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"It is disgraceful that over one fifth of all primary school children reach the end of their primary education without a secure grasp of basic mathematical skills. This can have serious long-term consequences: for many then continue through secondary school without acquiring basic numeracy skills, impairing their chances in life and leaving them later in need of expensive remedial education.

"The DCSF’s national strategy has helped to improve primary mathematics teaching and learning. But, despite the £2.3 billion spent each year on teaching maths in primary schools, improvements in attainment have recently levelled off. It is very disappointing that, in 2007, 66,000 relatively able pupils, including 38,000 who had been among the most able at Key Stage 1, did not make the progress promised by their early attainment.

"Social class of children at primary schools is too great a factor. There is a clear link between deprivation and underachievement in primary maths. This requires urgent action by the DCSF, including encouraging those local authorities that are more successful than others in narrowing the maths attainment gap in deprived areas to spread good practices.

"The Department’s ten year programme to train 13,000 specialist maths teachers will not benefit some primary schools for another decade. That’s far too long; the Department needs to look for ways to accelerate the programme."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 23rd report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (the Department), examined mathematics performance in maintained primary schools in England.

Understanding basic mathematics is an essential life skill and a good start at primary school paves the way for success at secondary school and beyond. Since the late 1990s, the Department has had a specific National Strategy to improve performance in primary mathematics. In 2007–08, this strategy cost some £104 million to implement. The Strategy aims to raise performance through extensive teaching and learning resources, supported by professional development programmes for teachers. In 2006–07, based on average teaching time devoted to the subject, some £2.3 billion was spent on teaching mathematics in primary schools, out of a total expenditure of £10 billion on primary teaching and teaching support staff.

Despite this expenditure, improvements in the mathematics results of primary school pupils have levelled off since 2000. In 2008, 79 per cent of pupils met the Government’s expected standard at Key Stage 2 (age 11) in national tests; the highest recorded results, but well short of the Department’s ambitions of 85 per cent by 2006. This means that 21 per cent of pupils-over one in five-are starting secondary school without a secure foundation in mathematics. In common with other subjects, there are persistent gaps in the mathematics performance of primary school pupils from different backgrounds and with different characteristics. In contrast to other subjects, boys are making more progress than girls. The biggest attainment gap-18 percentage points-is related to deprivation.

In 2008, 1,648 schools were deemed to be underperforming in mathematics compared with 3,570 in 2003, a reduction of 54 per cent. However, there is still a big gap in performance at school level that is partly linked to deprivation. Performance varies across England and between local authorities, with the percentage of pupils achieving the expected standard at Key Stage 2 ranging from 70 per cent to 87 per cent.

The Primary National Strategy has contributed to improvements in primary mathematics teaching and learning but weaknesses persist in vital areas such as the use and application of mathematics to real-life situations and the assessment of pupils’ progress.

Teaching quality is important, with pupils rating a good and enthusiastic teacher as the greatest influence in their enjoyment of mathematics. The lack of depth in subject knowledge of many primary school teachers, and the lack of take-up of continuing professional development in mathematics, are major concerns which the Department has only recently begun to address through a ten year programme to train 13,000 specialist teachers.

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