Disadvantaged students, maths & secondary transition

The OECD have produced further analysis of the latest PISA survey. The report, Low Performing Students: why they fall behind and how to help them succeed, shows that few countries have seen disadvantaged 15 year olds improve their basic skills of reading and maths. 

Emeritus Professor Anne Watson, has done extensive research into the teaching and learning of maths. Here she points out her investigations into the teaching of maths in year 7 as part of improving maths attainment after primary/secondary transition, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds underachieving by the end of KS2.

Comment from Anne Watson, Emeritus Professor of Education, Oxford University:

“I have lead two projects investigating in detail the work of teachers and school departments who deliberately and successfully raised the achievement of children who entered secondary school below the expected national levels of attainment. Apart from children with specific learning difficulties, these are generally children from a range of disadvantaged backgrounds who were already underachieving at the end of KS2. This research was qualitative, to get a deep and detailed description of practices that appeared to make a difference, based on observation of lessons and staff meetings, interviews and surveys. We identified common features among the teachers and school mathematics departments that made a difference to student achievement. To make a difference to the engagement and effort made by children from disadvantaged backgrounds individual teachers:

  • gave children time to think
  • responded supportively to children’s ideas, whether correct or incorrect
  • worked explicitly on developing concentration, participation, and memory
  • ensured children knew when they had made important mathematical progress
  • gave children choice of approach, means of expression, forms of recording
  • ensured children knew how mathematics were connected, or differed from each other
  • organised tasks so that the effort applied to one task paid off in the next task
  • used a range of forms of communication: visual, physical, verbal, symbolic etc.

To make a difference in test results three school departments used year 7 to lay the foundations for productive mathematical work, and results at the end of KS3 for those students who entered secondary school below national expectations increased compared to the previous year and attitudes to mathematics had become more positive.

These departments:

  • had stable mathematics departments containing a majority of teachers with strong mathematical knowledge
  • worked together and had critical discussions about methods of teaching particular mathematical ideas, often using research as a source of information
  • talk about mathematics in their informal and formal conversations
  • used year 7 to develop mathematical thinking and mathematical work habits
  • avoided making specific judgements about student potential by teaching in all-attainment groups
  • saw the teaching and learning of techniques as supporting a focus on mathematical concepts, relationships, and key ideas – not the other way round
  • had a strong sense of learning together including the heads of department
  • had no common teaching styles of lesson styles that we could discern.

In addition, the schools which had the strongest success had the most stable student populations. These features of teaching did not necessarily continue robustly throughout secondary school, but the cohort of students in two schools did significantly better by about 10% than the previous year at GCSE. In the third school there had been an almost complete change of staff, and the improvement was 5% on the previous year.

Taken together these studies suggest that a positive start to secondary school, focusing on the development of relevant work habits and key ideas for mathematics, responsive to students’ thinking and learning, in a stable school environment, can make a difference for disadvantaged children. Starting secondary school by focusing on retesting those who have failed to meet expected targets at the end of KS2 is likely to work against this philosophy.”


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