Figuring out how to close the numeracy gap

10th June 2016 at 00:00
Government urged to act as maths scores show growing divide in performance between rich and poor pupils

New figures have revealed a growing divide in numeracy performance between poorer pupils and their wealthier peers, prompting teachers’ and children’s organisations to warn that Scotland’s attainment gap cannot be closed in the classroom alone.

The figures from the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) came as a blow to new education secretary John Swinney, who has made it a priority to close the gap within a decade. Last year the survey showed falling literacy levels.

The proportion of all P4s doing “well” or “very well” in numeracy declined from 76 to 66 per cent between 2011 and 2015, but Mr Swinney noted that performance among older pupils had “largely stabilised” since disappointing results were published in 2013.

The proportion of S2s from wealthier backgrounds, who were doing well or very well, was more than double that of pupils from poor backgrounds.

Mr Swinney conceded that the figures were “a very real demonstration of the challenge that we have to address” in closing the attainment gap.

John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, told TESS that while Mr Swinney’s focus on the attainment gap was “hugely welcome”, tackling “the underlying poverty that undermines young people’s ability to participate and do well at school” was crucial.

Responding to the figures (, which show a large gap between wealthy and poorer children in P4 widening further by S2 (see box), he said it was “totally unacceptable in modern Scotland that growing up in poverty should too often damage children’s education to such a degree”.

‘Target the disadvantaged’

Mr Dickie said that five children in the average Scottish classroom of 23 were officially living in poverty and, with a 50 per cent increase in poverty predicted by 2020, educational solutions would only work if low pay and job insecurity were also addressed.

His comments were echoed by Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS union, who said that most pupils had performed well in numeracy, but that targeted funding was needed where children were struggling.

“Where there has been a dip, it has occurred primarily in pupils from the most deprived backgrounds – underlining the fact that austerity-driven cuts, which have deepened the levels of child poverty in Scotland, have created even greater barriers to educational achievement for too many of our young people,” said Mr Flanagan.

Stuart Jacob, director of Falkland House School in Fife – for boys with additional support needs (ASN) – and a member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition, said that the numeracy figures reinforced the need to direct more resources to ASN pupils, who come disproportionately from lower-income families and deprived areas.

These children were being “left behind” because of shrinking numbers of specialised support staff – with budget cuts trimming nearly 10 per cent of posts between 2010 and 2015, he said. But Mr Jacob did welcome government initiatives, such as the National Improvement Framework and action on teacher workload.

“However, over 22.5 per cent of the pupil population are classed as having ASN, and to genuinely close the attainment gap we need to invest in tailored resources for these disadvantaged and marginalised children and young people,” he added.

Mr Swinney insisted that first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s ambition to eliminate the attainment gap across all subjects within 10 years was “realistic”.

Speaking to TESS after addressing a School Leaders Scotland conference on attainment in Cumbernauld, he said that education would play “a major part” but, for maximum impact, it must combine with many other elements of government policy “in a coherent way”.

Opposition parties seized upon the numeracy figures, drawn from 10,500 pupils and 2,200 schools. Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith accused the SNP of having “completely taken its eye off the ball when it comes to education and helping those from the most deprived backgrounds”.

Schools ‘kill off’ maths instinct

Earlier this year, TESS reported concerns that children’s “intuitive” feel for maths was being undermined by the teaching of rigid techniques.

Everyone is born with a genetic predisposition to understand quantity, said Stuart Welsh, High School of Glasgow’s head of maths. Speaking at an Edinburgh conference on numeracy and literacy, he said this was a “survival instinct” honed by evolution since prehistoric times, whether it involved “looking at the quantity of wild boar and knowing straight away that one is a meal and 10 is a stampede, or judging quickly that a bush is full of berries”.

But, Mr Welsh added, “more or less, we kill [the instinct] off in school”. An over-reliance on strict techniques, such as times tables and chimney sums, made many children switch off from maths, he argued.

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