Primary school pupils are getting a broader and more uniform diet of maths under the national curriculum, according to new research. But there are signs that black children may be losing out because teachers are matching their coverage of maths more closely to a pupil's attainment.
The research, carried out by Ian Plewis and Marijcke Veltman from the Thomas Coram Institute at the London University Institute of Education, compared maths coverage in Years 1 and 2 in 22 inner London primary schools in 1993 with that found in the mid-1980s.
They discovered that pupils were covering a broader curriculum than was offered a decade earlier. In particular, more pupils were covering more items relating to shape, space and measures. Since the overall amount of time devoted to maths has not fallen, this could suggest that pupils now spend less time on simple numerical drill.
As the researchers expected, introducing the national curriculum had reduced variation between schools in the amount of maths pupils covered. For year two pupils, nearly half of the variation in coverage was between schools (as opposed to between pupils) in the mid-1980s, but this had fallen to a quarter in 1993.
In other words, as Ian Plewis told a conference at the London Institute last week: "In year two, the teacher you have and the school you attend has become less important in the last 10 years in terms of how much of the maths curriculum you cover."
The researchers also expected to find a closer match between pupils' maths attainment and the amount of the curriculum they covered than they had 10 years earlier. They assumed that the assessment procedures during year two would have an effect on teachers' behaviour, perhaps making them more aware of the need to present material at the "right" level for each pupil.
Again, this was borne out by their findings. Based on assessments carried out by the researchers at the start of year two, they discovered that pupils who scored highly covered more of the maths curriculum than their low-attaining fellows. This had also been true in 1985 but not to such a marked degree.
This had important implications for equal opportunities, Mr Plewis said, because attainment at the start of school was associated largely with socio-economic factors.
The black (Afro-Caribbean) pupils in the study had lower attainment in maths at the end of their first year and therefore covered less of the curriculum in their second, he said. There was evidence of a widening gap between black and white children as they moved from the infant to the junior stage.