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It is clear from recent studies outlined by Jeremy Sutcliffe in this week’s Tablet Education Supplement that England's schools are under-achieving in maths. While I cannot deny that maths teaching requires improvement, there are a number of factors hindering the nation’s success in the subject.
As a primary school teacher who has worked in two inner London schools I have celebrated great results through my hard work and dedication. But like many primary school teachers, I have faced considerable challenges.
The first of these is the increasing number children with English as an additional language (EAL). According to the NALDIC (National Association for Language Development in the curriculum) the results of the January 2013 School Census showed that one in six primary school pupils in England (612,160) does not have English as their first language, with figures doubling since 1997. Numbers of EAL pupils are highest in London, with the Borough of Tower Hamlets having 76 per cent EAL and Newham 75 per cent.
In my last teaching post, figures were higher still, with 27 out of 30 pupils in my Year 2 class (six to seven-year-olds) not having English as their first language (90 per cent). These children were at varying stages in their learning of the English language. I was lucky enough to have a teaching assistant with me full time but this proved a huge challenge for us.
Then a new pupil joined the school in the December. She was seven, did not have a word of English and had never been to school. Increasing numbers of children in this situation were joining classes further up the school. Some teachers had more than one arriving during the year. My teaching assistant helped by supporting children with their work, both in groups and individually. But when our new pupil arrived we were stretched because of the huge amounts of additional planning she required.
In his article, Sutcliffe mentions the success in maths enjoyed by St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Southwark. It is clear that they are doing things the right way to enable the children in their care to succeed. The effect of good discipline and the caring ethos that prevails in a good Catholic school should not be underestimated. However, lots of schools do not have the funding to set their pupils and put extra support in place because this requires more teachers and teaching assistants. This is especially the case for a one-form entry schools like mine was.
Over recent years I have noticed schools paying a lot of attention to their reading and writing attainment. In both schools I have worked at this was often the focus of staff meetings and training. Rather less attention was given to maths.
It is also important for schools to support parents to enable them to help with their children’s maths homework. Many schools are now holding workshops for parents, which are great, and more of these need to take place. I have noticed that many parents lack confidence in maths and sometimes inadvertently convey the same uneasiness to their children. They need to realise that this “rubbish at maths” attitude can undermine schools’ efforts. There are plenty of books and games parents can use to brush up on their on skills and help them convey to their children that maths can be enjoyable and even creative. As always, a partnership between parents and school is key to improving attainment.
Beatrice Bull is a British Catholic teacher working in Brisbane, Australia. @BuzzTeachingUK