Special needs summed up
The developments in mathematics teaching following the Cockcroft report of 1982 and, more recently, the guidance surrounding the national curriculum, have undoubtedly led to a richer and more rewarding experience of the subject for a great many pupils.
At the same time, much research has gone on into why children fail at maths. Schools are increasingly offering lower-attaining pupils support with their maths in the way they have traditionally done with reading. Yet there is still disturbing evidence that many pupils fail to make real progress.
One of the issues appears to be the failure in secondary schools to bring together the expertise of special needs teachers and mathematics specialists. Some reasons for this are straightforward: the desire to focus as much teacher time as possible on work in the classroom cuts down opportunities for collaborative planning and review.
Others are less obvious but no less potent. Learning support teachers rarely see themselves as mathematicians and maths teachers who see themselves failing with some pupils understandably feel that they lack expertise in special needs. In bringing together these two groups, precious time is often required just to overcome mutual suspicions and uncertainties before productive relationships can begin to flourish.
Secondary Mathematics and Special Educational Needs successfully addresses the needs of both maths and learning support teachers and could provide an excellent catalyst for joint development work. The authors interpret special needs in terms of pupils who find the subject difficult. There are no specific references to the special needs of those whose development is well ahead of their peers.
The first two chapters provide an overview of current special needs practices and recent changes to mathematics teaching. Like the rest of the book, these are commendably up-to-date reflecting both the 1994 Code of Practice for Special Needs and the post-Dearing curriculum.
Chapter three offers a brief historical perspective on the psychological models that have influenced changing pedagogies and provides illuminating summaries of the influence of writers such as Piaget, Dienes, Bruner, Skemp and Vygotsky. It is here, too, that the authors begin to develop their thesis that pupils with SEN in mainstream classrooms would be best served, like all pupils, by teaching which reflects contemporary pedagogical models rather than with restrictive approaches and narrow curricula. This message is developed further in the chapter on Classroom Approaches, which for many will be the main focus of the book.
In essence, the authors identify the benefits of particular teaching approaches to pupils labelled as mathematical "low-attainers". These approaches include practical work, problem solving opportunities and the use of games. They consider the effects of the social context in which pupils are taught and identify the benefits of group work and discussion in improving learning.
Following chapters focus more closely on the ways pupils work and learn and on the significance of language in learning and of mathematics as a language. Finally, the book questions again the arguments for "special teaching" and considers the implications for whole school policy development.
The authors believe the approaches that will help most pupils with special needs in maths are exactly those which will help all pupils improve their learning in the subject. The challenge returns to helping all teachers understand how pupils develop mathematically and provide flexible, responsive teaching which acknowledges individual needs.
This is an academic rather than an anecdotal book, with extensive references to research findings (including school-based projects such as RAMP and CAN). The few lapses into "psychobabble" are offset by the common-sense commentary and by a series of brief, though disconnected, accounts of real classroom incidents.
Secondary Mathematics and Special Educational Needs is a significant, accessible and thought-provoking contribution to the literature on special needs and mathematics. If you are a special needs co-ordinator or mathematics support teacher, buy a copy for yourself and one for your head of maths and fix the date now to discuss the messages for your school.
Linton Waters is Shropshire county inspector for mathematics.