Primary maths teaching in crisis

This account is not grounded in substantial research, however I have been working in primary schools as a consultant for nearly a decade now, I chat extensively with many teachers and I’m currently on supply in primary schools, so I’m probably about as well placed to try to describe what’s going on as anyone. I think it’s important that I try to do that because the issues are so serious.

When I run CPD for teachers, I train them to teach using low-floor high-ceiling methods for teaching maths which are extremely ‘self-healing’ if children have substantial gaps in their learning. A child who has missed up to a year of learning should be able to catch up.

In the past I have not found classes that my CPD would not work for, but I have come close to that.  The most challenging situations happen where there has been substantial disruption to the continuity of the teaching of a class (usually due to teacher absence) which contains an ‘extreme cohort’ of children with significant SEN.  These two situations form a negative feedback loop with each other because, when there is not consistent teaching, children with SEN are often not identified as quickly as they should be so interventions (which may include them receiving funded support or moving to a specialist school) are not put in place.  Because these children have not received the interventions they need, supply teachers and new permanent teachers arriving to teach the class struggle.  Any teaching assistants are likely to be working one-to-one with these children and are therefore unable to act as they usually would to support whole class learning.

What’s happening now is that whereas previously a school may have one class like this which they are well aware of, now some of the schools where a substantial proportion of the children who were at home during lockdown did no work at all have many classes which are experiencing the kinds of challenges I’ve described above to a much greater extent than I have ever seen before. 

Since lockdown ended, teachers of these classes have generally been prioritising teaching basic behaviour routines, reading, writing, wellbeing and assessing special needs.  As they now turn their attention to maths, they are becoming aware that what they are trying to deal with is profoundly serious, but they have nobody to talk to about this because nobody knows how to help them.  Typically, these teachers are trying to teach large classes, on their own, where perhaps half their students are more than a year behind (and so need to learn maths the class teacher is not resourced or trained to teach).  

To put this into clear focus, we should expect that in September many year 2 teachers will receive classes where significant numbers of children cannot count out 10 objects. This will have happened because this skill should have been secured in the final term of reception class which was during first lockdown. Teaching assistant support that exists in these classes may well be dedicated to children who should be funded for one-to-one support but aren’t or should have moved to special schools but haven’t.   These teachers will be expected to ensure all their children can cope with KS1 SATS (where children will be expected to complete column addition and subtraction without apparatus just eight months after they first teach them. This paragraph describes the kind of situation that even the maths teaching strategies I train teachers to use will not resolve.  Extra resource (i.e. extra help in the classroom – not just training) is needed, but the funding required for this is not being provided.

Any advice which is given to schools experiencing these challenges with primary maths teaching must respect the very serious nature of what they are dealing with and the stresses they are under.  Management in these schools is usually also profoundly overstretched for many covid-related reasons.   I am also finding that schools in England are spending significant amounts of time preparing for Ofsted inspections.

7 Replies to “Primary maths teaching in crisis”

  1. Serious problem, particularly in counting. But I also have a problem with low floor high ceiling, as the pupils who come to me for help – or, rather, whose parents bring them to me for help – have never got off the floor. Differentiation is not enough to help them. They need closely focused teaching, with small steps, based on what they can do. I like the approach in Learning without Limits, in which classes are pitched at different levels and pupils given a choice, so that all can succeed at the level they choose, or find.

    1. John – lfht teaching is very highly skilled and was always considered to be the best way to teach until it was suddenly so violently replaced from 2010 onwards. There are various forms of it (mainly those that use structure and those that use context) and the aim is to teach lessons where complex skills are taught for understanding with the learning of the lower level skills flowing from them rather than being prerequisite for the lesson. Context is more relevant at secondary – structure at primary. I’ve been sharing age-appropriate lfht methods for each primary maths topic on my YouTube channel. As you’re 5/6 you might find long multiplication interesting? The explanation of how to teach long multiplication using lfhc methods last about 10 mins then, just for that video, I’ve added an explanation of the pedagogy.

  2. This very clearly describes my class .
    I have been off either sickness for 12 weeks this academic year . My first sickness in 21 years of teaching .
    My class have had adult support stripped from 5 at the beginning of the year to just me , and 6 children added from year 1 which was split between myself and year R. I am failing my children daily and I am a maths specialist , maths lead in my school .

    1. Hi Dianne,

      Thank you so much for sharing your story. This is really painful to read. Because WordPress shows me your email address (because you’ve posted on my website) I’ve emailed you to see if you’d like to chat. Don’t know if I can help at all but I do care.


  3. This comment was posted on Facebook in response to this blog:

    “14 in my class attended daily maths lessons online, (2 are sen), 12 of these are now comfortably working at greater depth. 16 did not. They also didn’t join in during the y1 lessons in that lockdown. They are working at yr R level, yr 1 level or working towards ARE for y2.
    There is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon down the middle of my room and it’s very challenging teaching maths lessons catering to children who are 4 year groups apart”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.