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Maths anxiety: the numbers are mounting

Maths anxiety: the numbers are mounting

The Guardian World News

Flora Brian, whose maths anxiety was not easily diagnosed

Flora Brian, whose maths anxiety was not easily diagnosed. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian

My daughter Flora was just six when she announced that she didn’t understand a thing in maths lessons at school. We raised it at the next parents’ evening and were reassured that her maths was fine, but we began to notice that she sometimes made wildly illogical guesses when attempting basic addition and was easily confused by anything numerical. She was also getting upset about maths at school, but the more her teachers tried to reassure us that she was doing well, the more Flora insisted she didn’t let them see that she spent maths lessons copying other children.

It wasn’t until she moved to a new school two years later that her difficulties were identified, revealing such a vast gulf between her attainment in numeracy and in literacy that we suspected she could have dyscalculia, a kind of dyslexia with numbers. We took her to a specialist, who made it clear that although Flora wasn’t dyscalculic, her maths was very poor. She advised that Flora shouldn’t be taught maths in a normal class. In despair, we turned to an educational psychologist, and discovered that Flora’s problems weren’t down to ability, but to anxiety.

Maths anxiety, a feeling of fear about maths, is believed to affect about a quarter of the population, which would equate to more than 2 million schoolchildren in England alone, along with thousands of teachers. Many of us are familiar with that blind panic when faced with a maths problem we can’t fathom, but maths anxiety isn’t always recognised or understood.

Maths anxiety was first identified in the 1950s, but the devastating way it affects performance is only now becoming evident. For the first time, researchers at Stanford University in the US have used scans to see what goes on inside the brains of children with maths anxiety, and discovered that they respond to sums in the same way that people with phobias might react to snakes or spiders, showing increased activity in the fear centres. This in turn causes a decrease in activity in the problem-solving areas, making it harder to come up with the right answers. Dr Vinod Menon, the professor who led the project, explains its significance: “Our research is important because it is the first to identify the neural and developmental basis of maths anxiety, and our findings have significant implications for its early identification and treatment. It is also important because it shows that math anxiety in children is real. It cannot be wished away. It needs to be attended to and treated if it persists.”

If maths anxiety has such a devastating effect on ability, why aren’t we doing more about it? Most teachers and academics know it exists, but there are no formally established diagnostic tools to determine when worrying about maths becomes “maths anxiety”. What’s more, it can be counterproductive to tell a child that they have a problem, as Mike Ellicock, chief executive of the charity National Numeracy, explains: “Labelling and categorising children into those who can and can’t do maths isn’t helpful. There’s nothing more certain to be a self-fulfilling prophecy … but given encouragement and the right support, everyone can meet a functional level of numeracy.”

We clearly haven’t been offering the right support, as almost half of the UK’s adults are only capable of basic maths. It doesn’t help that we often see maths as the preserve of a few geeks. Maths is a clear-cut subject where answers are either right or wrong, and teaching methods focusing on quick recall, mental arithmetic and on answers given in front of the class are unhelpful to those who are less confident. Most teachers understand that confidence is as important as competence when it comes to maths achievement, but Peter Lacey, of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, says they are often constrained by a system focused on targets and attainment levels. “If you say slow down, ministers get concerned, but if you want to build a tall and secure house, you make sure your foundations are right. Sometimes there’s a rush in the earlier years of teaching that interferes with children gaining real confidence – once it goes wrong at that stage, everything afterwards is insecure. The pressure to get children to a particular level in tests at 11 can mean teaching them tricks to get good outcomes rather than making sure they are confident in their understanding.”

Experts in the field, such as Professor David Sheffield of Derby University’s Centre for Psychological Research, who is one of the country’s leading specialists in maths anxiety, believe it has a lifelong effect. So what would he advise? “The first thing to say is don’t do more maths. More maths is unlikely to work because it’s actually an anxiety problem. Try to deal with the anxiety with simple approaches like relaxation or breathing exercises. We did one study where we got people to do a relaxation exercise and then followed them up. Their anxiety scores had dropped and they were able to solve more problems.”

For Flora, extra help rediscovering the basics, along with a gentle approach at her new school, began to reap benefits and she gradually caught up. She has been happier and less stressed, which Michael Roach, her headteacher at John Ball school in south-east London, suggests may be the secret. “What we have seen in recent years is that tackling the anxiety and self-esteem of children and thus improving their confidence and related attitudes to maths has been key. Once the anxiety sets in, it can be very challenging to shift. We work hard to make maths relevant within a real-life context and, most of all, fun.”

If we want to improve national numeracy skills, we need to think more carefully about how to address the widespread anxiety about the subject, focusing on understanding rather than setting targets. Perhaps in the meantime, a few relaxation exercises could make all the difference.


Nursery Staff Skill Concerns Raised In Nutbrown Review

Nursery staff skill concerns raised in Nutbrown review

The Guardian World News |24 March 2012 06.02 GMT

Nursery schoolchildren

Despite the importance of early education in children’s development, Professor Nutbrown concluded that the work was seen as “low status, low paid, and low skilled”. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Nursery staff and childminders are allowed to work at pre-school groups without displaying basic literacy or numeracy skills,according to a Government-commissioned review.

Colleges demand more qualifications for students training to look after animals than for those who will care for babies, the report said.

Professor Cathy Nutbrown, an expert in early childhood education from Sheffield University, conducted the research and discovered that there was no requirement to demonstrate competence in English and mathematics.

These skills are important in supporting the development of babies and young children, as well as communicating with parents, she stated.

Professor Nutbrown found that although there are “examples of excellence”, there remained “substantial concerns” about the quality of training.

Despite the importance of early education in children’s development, she concluded that the work was seen as “low status, low paid, and low skilled”.

She wrote: “The hair or care stereotype still exists for many considering a course in the early years; yet many other sectors have raised their expectations in relation to enrolment.

“It must be a cause for concern that early years courses are often the easiest to enrol on and the courses that the students with the poorest academic records are sometimes steered towards.”

The Nutbrown Review quoted Dr Celia Greenway, from the University of Birmingham, who said: “For too long early years work has been perceived as an alternative to hairdressing and a suitable route for those who fail in school.”
The Unison union said: “By allowing non-qualified people to work in childcare settings we undermine the status of the qualified workforce. In nearly all professions, staff can only be employed if they are qualified.

“This should be the case in early education and childcare.”

Helen Perkins of Solihull College told the report that students must achieve a higher level of qualifications on their courses for animal care than child care.

“Nobody demands the same level of qualification before you can be left alone with a baby,” she said.

Meanwhile Professor Nutbrown expressed concern that some learning centres “push students through a course” even if they are not suited to a career in pre-school groups in a bid to achieve high completion rates.

She considered the introduction of a licence for nursery staff, but conceded it was unclear which organisation would manage such a scheme or how it could be funded.

Her interim report was published last week, and she will make her final recommendations in the summer.

GCSE Students Will Lose Marks For Poor Spelling From September 2012 – How Can We Help Children Improve Their Spelling?

Spelling is costing UK online businesses millions of pounds every year according to a BBC article published last year. A single spelling mistake on a website can halve a company’s online sales. Many employers complain about poor spelling skills in their workforce.

Do your children struggle to spell the simplest of words? Whent, theay, carnt, couldent, gynormus, frend, these are just a few of the common misspelt words I have come across. So have spelling levels decreased, and if so what are the reasons for this?

I have worked with very bright children who still struggle to spell. Poor readers often struggle with spelling and it has often been thought that poor spelling was linked to poor reading. However, I have, over the last 5 years, become more aware that we have strong readers with poor spelling skills. So what are the reasons for this?

I believe that strong readers should result in strong spellers. Children should be encouraged to look at whether a word looks right. In my experience there have been a number of changes in the emphasis of teaching which have influenced children’s experience of spelling

1) a too heavy reliance on phonics both for reading and spelling.

2) a focus away from correcting spellings in favour of creativity.

3) the development of emergent writing at too early an age.

4) a heavier reliance on IT.

Too heavy reliance on phonics

The English language is a phonetically irregular language and there are many exceptions to every rule in English. We have 26 letters of the alphabet which are used to form 44 speech sounds and even then there are several ways of writing the same sound. Take the sound oa, this can be written oa as in boat, oe as in toe, ow as in snow, o as in go or o-e as in hose, just to name a few. If we take the sound er there are also a number of combinations er as in feather, or as in doctor, ir as in girl, a as in banana, ur as in fur, ure as in measure. If, very early on in a child’s learning they are taught that a is for apple, how then can they decode words such as was and said? They learn to read and write phonetically, resulting in ‘sed’. Some children assimilate the rules of reading and spelling and become confident readers and spellers. Many partially move on but still become reliant on a phonetic approach to spelling.

So what is the answer? I have used many spelling programmes over the years. Children need to know the names of the letters of the alphabet and know that these can be arranged in many different ways to create different sounds for reading and spelling. Sometimes the same sound can be made using different letter combinations. I used to have a large THRASS chart in my classroom which was a visual reminder to children that there is more than one way to make a sound when spelling. Vowel sounds cause the most difficulty as there are only 5 letters to make 20 different sounds with. Teaching spellings in word families helps and teaching words with the same sound ie ea words alongside ee words beach, teach, steal, steel, feel. This helps children to learn that they need to remember and learn visually which graphemes (letters) they need for which word. Children often struggle with homophones (words which sound the same but are spelt differently), there, their, they’re. Try pointing these out as they occur in reading or find ways to remember the differences; their with an i in it is to do with a person/ animal, as in I for me, there with the word here in it is to do with place or position. Children need to learn early that English is a phonetically irregular language and therefore phonics can not be applied consistently -either to reading or spelling.

A focus away from correcting spellings in favour of creativity

I believe that failing to correct spellings in favour of creativity is a mistake, it is very difficult to correct misconceptions once they have been ingrained. A child in Year One may write creatively and write the word gigantic as jigantic: if this is uncorrected the child will presume that the spelling is correct and therefore continue to spell it this way. At some point he will be told that the spelling is incorrect and then will have to try to reprogram his brain. I am not saying that we should make children re-write large pieces of writing, but I do believe that the correct word should be written next to the misspelt one to aid with children’s spelling development. High frequency words which are misspelt should be written at the bottom of a child’s piece of work for them to practice (said, went). I believe it is essential to correct spelling misconceptions early.

The development of emergent writing at too early an age.

Children as young as 4 are being encouraged to write. In my opinion this is too early. Many children develop poor pencil grip and handwriting and are left to invent spellings, building misconceptions. Children should become confident readers before they begin to write, that way they have an understanding of how text is constructed, how words look and how punctuation is used. Too often, poor habits are formed early and then these are difficult to break. If children are going to write at an early age, a transcript should be made underneath the child’s writing so that correct spelling and punctuation can be modeled.

A heavier reliance on IT

With a greater reliance on IT in the last 15-20 years we are all relying more on spell checks. Sometimes these fail us as they only pick up misspelt words, not mistyped words. They are also only able to make spelling suggestions if the word is almost spelt correctly. In the UK, exams are still completed as written tasks and in the last few years there has been a greater emphasis on spelling and grammar in the marking of GCSE English papers. From September 2012 5% of marks on GCSE papers in the key subjects will be awarded for spelling, grammar and punctuation and this could make the difference of a grade: End for GCSE modules and spelling, punctuation and grammar marks restored to exams

So what can you do to help your child become a better speller?

1) Always correct misspelt words.

2) Highlight to your child that the letters of the alphabet can be arranged in many different ways to make different sounds and that the same sound can be made using more than one combination.

3) Avoid teaching one letter has one sound.

4) Pay attention to homophones, check these regularly and find ways to remember these.

5) Encourage children to look at whether a word looks right, make the link between reading and spelling, use a dictionary (even an online one) to check words that children are not sure how to spell.

6) Try using a pneumonic to remember tricky words because baby elephants can’t always use scissors easily.

7) Try writing the word in different colours (rainbow spelling) friend

At Kip McGrath Scunthorpe we believe that an over-reliance on phonics is jeopardising children’s abilities to spell proficiently at an early age thereby detrimentally impacting on their life chances. With an increased emphasis on spelling at GCSE level and a steady decline in spelling standards being seen nationwide amongst the adult population it is essential, for both the economy and children as individuals, that students are given all the tools they need in order to become proficient readers and writers. At Kip Mcgrath Scunthorpe we support parents through the use of proven tutoring methods to equip our students with everything they need to read, write and spell accurately and fluently, giving them the best possible start in life..

School maths lessons: Pupils ‘scared to ask for help’ – How Can I Help My Child Do Better In School

I read with interest the article in the BBC Education News that highlighted an increased reticence among students about asking for help with their maths as they get older. The survey that questioned students aged 10-16 shows a steep decline in students seeking help from 66% at the top end of Primary school to just 33% amongst 16 year olds.

Of the 15-16 year olds questioned half of them gave the reason that they “felt they should already know the answer.” Furthermore, the survey highlighted a much higher proportion of boys asserting that they were “very good at maths.”

These figures led me to consider the proportion of Kip McGrath Scunthorpe students who are enrolled with us for Maths tuition either as a discrete subject or alongside another subject. The results were very revealing and, to a certain extent, made sense in light of the survey results.

The above chart shows the percentage ratio of male to female students at four different stages of schooling. In Primary school the proportions are almost even with approximately 48% of our Maths students being boys. There is then a sharp and consistent decline until we see 100% of our A’Level Maths students being girls. This trend is made clearer by the line graph below.

I then began to wonder how the results of both my in-house research and the article’s survey compared with last years GCSE attainments at A* to C Grade. The results produced by the Guardian’s analysis did not fit with my figures. The Guardian suggested that boys were ahead of girls in both 2010 and 2011 with each gender improving at a similar rate.

This sparked my curiousity so I decided to drill into the figures to try and understand why boys appeared to be outstripping girls even though they were not receiving the same levels of extra tuition. The actual figures when broken down into individual grades revealed that the results aren’t so straight forward. Again, I have produced a graph which illustrates the differences between the assumption drawn by the Guardian using the standard A* to C Grade measurement and what I believe to be the real picture.

As the graph above shows the growth rate of girls attaining A* and A Grades outstrips boys. Additionally, where we see a dip in B Grades between 2010 and 2011 girls’ reduction in progress was less than boys’. It is only the rates of those attaining C Grades that appears to match the inferences drawn from combining all the Grades into one figure. But all these figures would suggest that girls are, overall, catching up with boys in the higher grades within this attainment banding which is why there is a smaller growth rate for C Grade achievers, even though the growth rate for A* to C achievers was the same as boys year on year.

If this is the case, what does this say about the difference between boys and girls in their maths abilities? Most educational professionals would tell you that boys tend to be more mathematically minded generally so it is perhaps, not surprising that boys are ahead of girls allbeit by a small margin. But I believe this reveals a bigger difference between the two genders.

Firstly, when it comes to seeking extra help girls are more likely to ask for support right the way through their school careers regardless of peer pressure wheras boys don’t want to admit that they need help. Our own Centre’s figures would back this hypothesis up as the highest proportion of Maths students is at Primary level when they are young enough to be influenced by their parents to attend even though they may be reluctant at first. Indeed, more often than not, it is the boys who tell us during assessments that they are good at the subject in question even though the actual assessment reveals the opposite to be true.

Secondly, it highlights that even girls who are doing reasonably well at a subject are prepared to seek help and put in the extra work to get a higher grade while boys are more likely to be happy to coast through to a lower grade than they are actually capable of achieving.

Furthermore, the actual figures reveal a worrying downward trend in boys Maths achievement levels which is masked by the oversimplistic A* to C banding of results. This, as can be seen by the linked graphs below, is matched by an upward trajectory in girls achievements over the same period.

According to the boys’ results the .5% dip in boys B Grade achievements almost entirely accounts for the increase of .6% in C Grades. When you allow for the .3% increase in male students entering the achievement band in 2011 .1% can be allocated to the C Grade increase and the other .2% can be attributed to the A* Grade increase. The A Grade figures were static year on year. By contrast, the girls saw a .4% drop in B Grade achievers but only half of this can be allocated to the .2% increase in C Grade results. This leaves a further .2% to be taken from the drop in B Grade achievements and the .3% increase of  A* to C Grade achievers overall to be distributed between the higher A and A* results.

It is my belief therefore, based on these figures, that not only are girls doing better in Maths at GCSE, they are also improving their results year on year. In comparison boys are not doing as well as they appear to be and their results are getting worse year on year.

In my opinion there are three basic reasons for this:

  1. Boys are more prone to being overconfident of their abilities and simply less aware that they need help with maths.
  2. Even when boys do realise that they need extra help because they are not getting the grades they need they are less likely to ask for assistance either because of male pride or peer pressure.
  3. Boys are more likely to “coast” and not put in the extra work they need to achieve according to their ability as long they are on target for what they are being told is the minimum required grade.

We had one student who, having chosen his friendship goup early on in his High School career, adjusted his study efforts and achievements in order to remain with his friends. This decision drastically hindered his ability to get the grades of which he was capable.

So what can be done to turn around this worrying trend?

  1. It is vitally important that parents are aware of these facts. They need to monitor their sons’ progress even more closely than their daughters’ from an early age so that they can get the extra help, if needed, before they fall prey to peer pressure as they get older. In our experience initially reluctant male students who first attend Kip McGrath Scunthorpe while in Primary School are more likely to return for tuition later on in their school careers. This is because they see the benefits of extra tuition, are in the important habit of putting in extra work and want to achieve their potential.
  2. The Government must stop oversimplifying the results by lumping the A* to C Grades into one measurement of progess in education standards.This is painting an inaccurate picture of boys’ and girls’ achievements in Maths by understating the progress of girls and masking the drop in boys’ results. Worse still, it is giving boys a false impression of what they need to achieve and providing them with an officially validated reason for coasting their way to C Grades.
  3. It is vital that we instil a positive study ethic in boys at a young age and encourage them to push themselves to achieve what they are capable of and not just do the bare minimum. This, of course, touches on the validity of appropriate levels of homework for Primary age children and we will discuss this further in our forthcoming response to the recent scrapping of the homework guidelines.

In conclusion, we must set the bar higher by paying more attention to the progress of students in A* and A Grades in order to push currently reluctant male students to do better. It is sadly clear that there are far too many students who are being left to under-achieve in order to satisfy an artificial and overly simplistic measurement of the progress in standards. It is not right that any child whether male or female is prevented from living up to their ability levels. At Kip McGrath Scunthorpe we work with all our students to instil the confidence and subject knowledge they need and provide them with the ambition to fulfil their potential.

If you believe that your child needs extra support with their learning please contact us to find out how we can help you.

Nick Gibbs Launches New Reading Competition

New National Reading Competition To Create A Generation Of Book Lovers

‘Poor numeracy ‘blights the economy and ruins lives’ – How Can I Help My Child With Their Maths?

News out recently from the BBC News Website suggests that attaining good maths skills is a major problem for millions of people in this country and according to figures quoted in the article the situation is getting worse with just 22% of people surveyed possessing strong enough numeracy skills to gain a good GCSE compared with 26% in 2003. A lack of numeracy ability is blighting individual peoples lives because they are unable to understand their payslips, train timetables or household bills.

Chris Humphries, who is chairman of National Numeracy (a charity launched today that aims to emulate the successes of the National Literacy Trust) and a former chief executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, says that “15% of Britons studied maths after the age of 16, compared with 50-100% in most developed nations.”  National Numeracy quotes research which indicates that weak maths skills are linked with an array of poor life outcomes such as prison, unemployment, exclusion from school, poverty and long-term illness. He also asserted that “many people could not get jobs because they struggled to read graphs and interpret documents, while plumbers unable to do the calculations required to install an energy-efficient boiler might lose income,”

But there is an even wider issue here as other surveys carried out show that a widespread lack of basic maths skills is also damaging the UK’s economic growth. Mr Humphries referenced research by KPMG auditors which appear to show that annual costs to the public purse amounted to £2.4bn. “We are paying for this in our science, technology and engineering industries, but also in people’s own ability to earn funds and manage their lives,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

TV presenter Carol Vorderman, head of the Conservative Party’s “maths task force”, told BBC News she was “horrified” by more evidence of Britain’s poor maths skills.

So is maths really a foreign language? Mathematics is often described as a universal language. It transcends language barriers. Numbers, Algebra, Fractions, Trigonometry. Do they fill your child with dread? Has Maths always been hard work? For many students in the UK, Mathematics has become a blockage, a stumbling block, a subject which is difficult to make the grade in. So why has mathematics become such a foreign language? And how can we help our chldren gain the valuable skills and confidence they need in maths.

Having worked with hundreds of students struggling to make the grade in Maths I believe there are some essential keys.

1) Students do not have a firm foundation of how the number system works making multiplying and dividing by 10 and 100 weak and working with decimals almost impossible.

2) Tables recall is weak. Most students have not learnt these by rote and those who have found it difficult to acquire tables recall seem unable to use known facts as a starting point. A student who knows the 5 times table should be able to start at 5×7 to work out what 7×7 is.

3) Students are not always given efficient written calculation methods for written calculations. I had an A grade student who was unable to solve a long division problem.

4) Students who have mastered effective written strategies need to move on with their calculating. Whilst a number line for subtraction is great for early mastery of skills it is like stabilisers on a bike; there comes a day when the stabilisers are removed and children are able to ride by themselves. Equally in Maths there comes a day when the early strategies need to be replaced with traditional calculation methods. The grid method is great for 2 digit by 1 digit calculations but to calculate a 3 digit by 3 digit multiplication problem it is time consuming, takes a lot of space and has more room for error than the traditional long multiplication strategy.

5) Division, this is the foundation for all work on fractions, decimals and percentages. I believe that division is introduced too early and not consolidated. The introduction of the chunking method in school has caused much difficulty for children to succeed in this area of mathematics.

6) The mathematics curriculum in the UK moves on very quickly. For many children they have not mastered a skill before they have moved on. The next time this skill is encountered the gaps begin to widen as there is little or no foundation to build on.

So what can be done? Find out what topics are being covered in Maths by your child. Ensure they have got the building blocks needed or that if they have not understood a topic they are able to consolidate this before they revisit it.

Tables recall is key, being able to partition numbers, understanding the place value of each digit they are working with and how this links to the number system as a whole. Being able to double and halve numbers, knowing number bonds to 10 and 20. Having reliable age/ developmental written methods for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I encounter many GCSE students who do not have efficient and reliable calculation methods.

Check your child understands how the number system works, this reduces concept errors in calculating. Above all children should enjoy mathematics so try to make it fun.

At Kip McGrath Scunthorpe we use proven tution methods that combine both paper and computer based learning activities in order to help our students gain confidence in maths and provide them with the essential numeracy skills they require not just for passing exams but for the rest of their lives. We therefore welcome the announcement of the launch of National Numeracy and the work that they will be doing in encouraging a love of numeracy and a development of people’s numeracy skills and we wholeheartedly agree with the importance of having a high level of basic maths.

Additionally, we note with interest that this Wednesday is World Maths Day as part of the World Education Games which includes a National Spelling Day tomorrow and World Science Day on Thursday. The online competition is open to all school age students and approximately 5.5 million are taking part this year. The deadline for registering for the 2012 games has passed but we will be monitoring the results with interest to see how how the United Kingdom compares with other countries. And we will be actively encouraging our students to participate in next years games.

If you are concerned that your child is lacking in confidence or skills with their maths please call us now to book a FREE assessment or visit our website for more information about how we can help.

Michael Gove Scraps Homework Rules – What Do Parents Think?

Michael Gove scraps homework rules

Schools have been given the go-ahead to reduce the amount of homework they set  for pupils after complaints from parents that studies are cutting in to family time.


It has been revealed today that the Government is planning to scrap the homework guidelines for schools set by the last Labour administration. Critics of the practice of setting homework for Primary age children have hailed this announcement as good news, whilst advocates of homework fear that this policy will send out the wrong message and devalue its role in the learning and assessment of schoolchildren.

We have created a short survey on current homework practices at the side of our page. Please complete the survey so that we can understand what is happening within schools today. We will use the results to produce a full response in a weeks time and would value your input into this subject.

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