Mathematics Improve Social Mobility In The United Kingdom

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Social mobility is defined as a person’s ability to move to a different social class, usually from a lower social status to a higher one. In the United Kingdom (UK), social mobility is in decline ‘with more than half of people saying the government is failing to do enough to help the least well off’ (Butler. P, 2020). When the Social Mobility Commission interviewed people regarding their views and perceptions on life prospects in their residential area, they found that just under ‘33% of people in the north-east of England’ (Butler. P, 2020) believed they had a good chance of success in their area in comparison to ‘74% of those in the south-east’ (Butler. P, 2020). Clearly, improvement needs to be made on this measure and a significant proportion of this is simply down to education. It has been discussed that a person’s educational drive is closely linked to their parents education, so ‘if you are born to parents who gained fewer qualifications at school, you are likely to gain fewer qualifications and earn less as an adult’ (Social Mobility: Ending the opportunity gap | Learning and Work Institute, 2020).

In 2017, the UK government issued an action plan for social mobility within education. The overarching ambition is that ‘no community is left behind’ (Department of Education (DfE), 2017) and placing an importance on the range of places where resources are required the most. The government announced four ambitions to achieve this: ‘closing the word gap in early years, as too many children fall behind with their language early’ (DfE, 2017), ‘high quality post sixteen education choices for all young people’ (DfE, 2017) and ‘to ensure ‘everyone is achieving their full potential in rewarding careers’ (DfE, 2017). The aim is to tackle gaps in development, especially in early language skills, ‘ensuring more disadvantaged children leave school having mastered the basic of literacy that many take for granted’ (Greening. J, 2017). The final ambition, the one I will be concentrating on, is ‘closing the attainment gap in school while continuing to raise standards for all’ (DfE, 2017).

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Even though the attainment gap is closing, disadvantaged children remain further behind than their advantaged peers. Can this be tackled through education starting from early years? Achievement for All argue that ‘we should be focusing more on building the core in children and young people through the development of basic maths skills,’ (Knowles, C. 2020) as it is commonly a requirement from employers to have a minimum of a Grade C in GCSE mathematics. Literacy is regularly considered to be the main driver for social mobility, but can an improvement in teaching mathematics, in practice, lead to an increasingly socially mobile population? We are currently in a technology driven era, which will continue to grow, therefore we will need to increase the basic numeracy skills amongst all, as ‘those with higher level maths skills are more likely to enjoy higher earnings and remain in employment throughout their working life’ (Knowles, C. 2020). In this essay, I will be focusing on how we as teachers can change our approach to close the attainment gap between the children in our classrooms through mathematics, specifically through teaching for mastery.

In 2019, the Social Mobility Commission in the UK stated that ‘social mobility has stagnated over the last four years at virtually all life stages’ (Adams, R. 2019) and it is widely debated that the root cause is the disparity in opportunities across the country in education. They highlight that ‘entry into professional occupations is largely dependent on parents’ careers, with children from professional backgrounds 80% more likely to go into a professional occupation such as law or medicine, thanks to their stronger educational qualifications’ (Adams, R. 2019) which is leaving young people in this country poorly prepared for their futures. Elizabeth Truss, Member of Parliament (MP), advised we in the UK have a problem with social mobility through the maths and sciences, that we do not have in the arts subjects. The Fair Education Alliance researched this, and found that in some areas of England, schools were providing a better education than other areas in the country. These primary schools were essentially delivering a better education because ‘they were delivering a high-quality maths education irrespective of children’s social or economic background’ (Knowles, C. 2017). They use a whole school approach to maths instead of setting in ability and within that, ‘key features include children spending a short amount of time with a teacher before the lesson to go over a concept they might have failed to grasp in the previous lesson and ensuring that children who are likely to underachieve are exposed to the same rich maths experiences as their peers’ (Knowles, C. 2017). Elizabeth Truss MP firmly believes that even if children did not proceed to study a maths or science at university, ‘a good background in the subject is vital, because it is the next generation of primary school teachers, of journalists, of politicians who also need to be sure they know the basics of maths.’

In February 2020, a social mobility ranking was published listing the 82 most socially mobile countries in the world. The Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Sweden ‘lead the ranking due to their high-quality education systems, strong social safety nets, inclusive institutions and good job opportunities’ (Jones, 2020). The Nordic educational model was heavily influenced by ‘international, political new radicalism in which increasing importance was attached to pupils’ individual emancipation, and there was greater local influence over school development as well as by the teaching profession’ (Telhaug, 2006). In turn, by focusing on the development of education and further developing teachers in their profession, it has created a population that can access their full potential. This has not been the case in the UK, as there is a lack of quality teachers entering the profession, due to the ‘workload in schools and the punishing pressures of accountability’ (Coughlan, S. 2018). Teaching for mastery could lessen the burden on teachers in schools, as there is evidence to support that ‘three in five teachers in England differentiate their [maths] lessons for pupils with different abilities, only one in five Singaporean teachers do’ (Jerrim et al., 2016). This is simply from tackling teaching through whole class mastery of concepts.

It can be argued that social mobility in the UK is hindered by the lack of maths teachers, as compared to other countries, ‘the UK has a bigger gap between the highest and lowest attaining students in mathematics’ (PISA, 2014). Elizabeth Truss MP calls for more funding to maths and English as ‘this lack of funding helps explain why Britain now lies 28th in the OECD programme for international student assessment’ (Watt, 2012). It is clear there needs to be a new approach to teaching mathematics in the UK, otherwise the attainment gap will just continue to increase. Since then, teaching for mastery ‘became central to current policy in mathematics education in England in 2015,’ (Boylan et al., 2018) due to the success of Singapore and Shanghai’s transnational assessments. As two of the highest international performers for mathematics, the UK mastery programme has been influenced by their consistent approach to mathematics teaching. The principles of the programme are as follows: ambitious expectations for all pupils, gaps in learning are immediately addressed, all pupils access rich mathematical content, avoidance of grouping and labelling children, conceptual and procedural maths taught together and lastly, investment in professional development for teachers. So far in the UK, maths mastery has been implemented in 530 schools, developing 5800 teachers and impacting 176,000 pupils. The purpose of the programme is to increase resilience, enjoyment and attainment in maths, and by doing so, in the future, we will be looking at a population with increased numerical skills and therefore an increase in social mobility across the UK.

In my current placement school, they use concepts of the teaching for mastery programme to close the gap between the high and low ability children in the school across the key stages. When planning maths lessons, teachers use a wide range of strategies to ensure they are meeting the needs of all children in their class. One way in which they do this is through variation; conceptual variation and procedural variation. Conceptual variation provides different images and representations of the same number and procedural variation is varying one aspect of a problem to expose a mathematical structure or connection. Through designing exercises in this way, ‘the teacher is advised to avoid mechanical repetition and to create an appropriate path for practising the thinking process with increasing creativity’ (Gu, 1991). For example, my current class of year four students, are studying fractions and decimals, which is already a difficult topic for children to understand, but through teaching for mastery, children were able to identify that three tenths is equivalent to thirty hundredths, then building on the learning further to understand that we can break this fraction down into two fractions; thirty hundredths is equivalent to three tenths and zero hundredths. This was also represented as a bar model, ‘where in Singapore and other high achieving countries it is used as a powerful model applicable in both primary and secondary mathematics lessons. The bar representation exposes the mathematical structure of the problem being considered, enabling the pupil to see with clarity the concepts and procedures needed to solve the problem’ (National Centre of Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), 2015). After the lesson, I asked the children which representation they found easier to follow, and just under half of the class thought a visual representation, especially using a bar model, was more beneficial to them. This highlights the importance of variation, where without using the bar model, half of the children in the class would not have been able to access the information required to successfully understand the lesson.

I also supported the teachers and collected data for year four assessments that were taking place. By calculating the children’s scores, we were able to identify if children’s grades had improved, worsened or stagnated over the course of the year. Through collecting data, we were able to determine that 35% of the class’ grades had improved from previous maths assessments, 60% of the class had similar results to their previous assessments, and only 5% had worse grades then their past results. I believe these results are heavily connected to the improvement made in teaching maths across the school. By not grouping or labelling children in the classroom, all children were able to receive access to rich mathematical content which resulted in an increase in performativity in assessment. Also, with the results, we were able to acknowledge the areas in which children were struggling and devise lesson plans or short maths meetings to tackle these misconceptions immediately. It is apparent that teaching ‘conceptual and procedural maths together’ (Mastery, 2020) and tackling misconceptions as soon as they are recognised, reduces the attainment gap and therefore it is beginning to create a more socially mobile population for the future.

Through my own teaching practice, I have experienced two different age groups thus far and witnessed how the teaching for mastery programme is used in both year groups. On my first placement in a year one class, I observed my mentor teach a fifteen to twenty-minute maths meeting daily. This consisted of reciting days of the week, telling the time, counting money and mental maths (calculating number bonds to ten). The lessons were planned to provide plenty of examples and scaffolding to solving problems. The teaching assistant and trainee teachers in class were utilised efficiently to sit alongside those who may need assistance during the lesson. In the UK, we have been known to use ability setting in our classrooms, but this has been seen to be detrimental to children who have been set in lower ability groupings, as these children ‘have less exposure to core mathematical concepts – equations or functions for example – than their peers in higher level groups’ (Knowles, C. 2020). Through mastery, again, I was able to recognise how the ‘avoidance of grouping and labelling children’ (Mastery, 2020) created a base understanding amongst all in the class as gaps in learning were addressed immediately.

Both of my placement schools used the teaching for mastery approach in mathematics and I recognised the positive impact it had especially on those children who had Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and those who fell behind in mathematics. One of the key approaches to mastery is progressing through small steps in teaching, and in practice this works well for SEND children, meaning there is minimal need to differentiate in lessons, as the approach is set in whole class teaching. From my personal experience, I was able to tackle misconceptions immediately and by using the concrete-pictorial-abstract approach advised by teaching for mastery, this provided the children, who would argue that they are ‘not good at maths,’ the ability to complete tasks effectively in both year groups.

Through using conceptual variation across both year groups, I was able to represent number bonds to ten in different ways for my year one class and was able to represent fractions and decimals using a place value chart and hundred squares for my year four class. It is worth noting that ‘within high performing countries, where mastery approaches could be said to be prevalent, disadvantaged pupils do as well as their peers’ (PISA, 2014) and this provides the basis we need to improve the social mobility rates in the UK.

However, on my current placement, I noticed that children who were confident in the concept being taught or children with a high ability in maths were being advised to skip the first task and start on task two. It was identified in a staff meeting that this was the incorrect approach to mastery, and for mastery to be successful children must attempt to complete every question from the beginning to reinforce learning and secure understanding of the concept. We understand that to increase social mobility, we need to reduce the gap between the less able and the high achieving children, but are we sacrificing the education of these high achievers to ensure the less able children are moving up? This can be identified as ‘tall poppy syndrome’ (Gallagher, J. 2015). The DfE state that the expectation of teaching for mastery ‘is that most pupils will move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace.’ Gallagher argues that we as teachers need to appreciate the value of individuality of each child in the class and create a setting where we provide equal opportunities for all to succeed, essentially discouraging the notion of teaching for mastery. A classroom policy with an approach to stunt the growth of the “tall poppies” for the sake of increasing social mobility aggravates inequalities and as Gallagher explores, this then becomes a civil rights issue (See Appendix, Theme 2 – Topic 3).

In conclusion, it is evident that the teaching for mastery programme has huge potential in the UK. I have experienced how using the mastery programme principles has had a positive impact on children in mathematics across different ages and different abilities. The Fair Education Alliance state in their numeracy report that ‘for too many children and young people, the pattern of underachieving in maths has not yet been broken. There is still a lot more work to be done in early years settings and schools across England’ (Fair Education Alliance, 2017), to support those children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but by introducing a whole class approach to teaching maths, we will be able to tackle this problem from the root. The Maths Mastery Programme claim that mastery is ‘a highly effective approach to the teaching and learning of mathematics for all and could have particular benefits for pupils who are falling behind in the current system’ (National Association of Mathematics Advisors, (NAMA) 2015). The implementation of the teaching for mastery initiative across the country, will consequently increase social mobility, providing those from a disadvantaged background access to the same opportunities as their affluent peers.

To summarise some notes from the body of this essay, ‘to close the attainment gap in mathematics, we need to start in the earliest years of education’ (First and First, 2020). We need to be aware that ‘a child’s inherent intelligence is not determined by their race, sex or ethnic group, but by ‘sequential experiences’ within their environment, therefore the more ‘experiences’ a child has access to, the quicker the abilities can crystallise’ (Gallagher, J. 2015). Consequently, not only will teaching for mastery and using variation effectively provide more confident and successful mathematicians but by reducing the attainment gap, we will be able to produce an increase in social mobility in future generations.  

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