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Too Many Children Leave School Without Maths Skills for Life

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England's school inspectors - known collectively by the little-loved acronym of Ofsted (www.ofsted.gov.uk- that's the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills, in case you were wondering....) - have just published a report on the state of mathematics in English schools. Like most education reports, it's a tale of positives and negatives and some hug gaps between them.

But the report's bottom line is clear and depressing: too many children leave school without the maths they need for everyday life. Nearly half of schools are - in Ofsted-speak - 'satisfactory' (which more accurately means unsatisfactory) or 'inadequate' in their teaching of maths, rather than 'good' or 'outstanding'.

No surprise there. We know from recent government figures highlighted by National Numeracy at its launch in March that nearly half the working age population in England - 17 million adults - have the numeracy skills expected of a child at primary school.

We know too from personal stories that that sort of under-performance is usually traced back to experiences at school, and we know from a whole host of research that poor numeracy increases your chances of unemployment, a criminal record and mental health problems.

But what's disappointing is that things don't seem to be getting better. Ofsted's overall findings are similar to those it came up with in a previous report on school maths four years ago.

That means there's still too much variation in teaching between schools and even within schools. Those who start school with the least knowledge of maths fall increasingly behind, so that by 16 the gap between top and bottom is vast or, as Ofsted puts it, "low attainment too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy". At the same time, the most able are not being consistently challenged.

Too much teaching is seen as getting students through tests rather than giving them a real understanding of what maths is about and so preparing them for the next stage of education, work and life. Teachers have become more aware of the need to improve students' problem-solving and investigative skills, but rarely integrate that into the way children learn.

But there is progress in some areas. Overall very young children are doing better in the early years foundation stage (up to five). And more teenagers are passing maths in GCSE and A-level exams.

But Ofsted puts a caveat there, suggesting that the exams have got easier and that even if results look better on papers, students' understanding of maths hasn't risen commensurately. And given that it's still true that fewer young people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland choose to continue with maths after 16 than in most other developed countries, that's a pretty grim caveat. (Scotland does a little better, as I've reported before, because of a different exam system and curriculum.)

But there are reasons to cheer. The report is peppered with examples of what does and doesn't work in the classroom, and how to turn the doesn't into the does.

And there's an appendix-of-honour in Ofsted's press release listing the outstanding schools (11% of the total) where the standard of teaching is consistently higher, the curriculum well organised and mathematically rich, where those needing extra help get it, where students become fluent in maths and learn to tackle unfamiliar as well familiar problems. They stand there as beacons, showing what can be done but what doesn't get done often enough.

This is a summary report card classically in the 'could do better' category. And it comes at a time not just of high concern about standards of numeracy in the UK but also crucially at the beginnings of a new awareness that failure - individually and nationally - is not inevitable. That's what we believe in National Numeracy and we think it's what Ofsted means when it calls on the government to raise the national ambition in numeracy.

There are brilliant teachers out there - and well organised schools who make good use of them and support the less than brilliant - but they're thin on the ground. In fact there simply aren't enough qualified maths teachers, let alone brilliant ones (and recruitment to the profession looks down again this year).

It is of course a vicious circle. If children don't get able and inspiring teachers, they grow up unable - or, more accurately, convinced they are unable - to do maths. Negative attitudes are perpetuated and inherited by the next generation. There are several places where the circle can be broken. But school is the most obvious.

Around the Web

Developing maths skills for five to 11 year olds : Directgov - Parents

Woodlands Maths Zone - Fun interactive maths games

Math Playground - Online Math Games that Give your Brain a Workout

BBC - Schools Ages 4-11 - Numeracy Sites