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Improving the nation’s numeracy: what can we learn from the British cohorts?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 4 July 2024

Colourful hand-drawn mathematical graphs and equations on a black background.

Adapted from 9george / Adobe Stock.

Charlotte Booth, Claire Crawford, Vanessa Moulton

Every new government likes to put their own stamp on the National Curriculum – with varying use of evidence to support their changes.

The next government is sure to be no different, no matter who wins today. While the UK’s two main parties have campaigned on very different platforms, there is one issue where the Conservatives and Labour do agree – the importance of maths.

Both parties have vowed to improve the nation’s maths skills, making much of the lifelong value of good numeracy for education, work, and life more broadly. However, while the Conservatives’ focus is on continuing maths until at least age 18, Labour are focused on earlier intervention.

To date, neither party has provided much evidence to underpin their positions. Enter the British cohort studies – a unique collection of scientific projects each following the lives of a generation of Britons. Under the management of the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies, these studies have been part of the evidence base for skills-related policies for decades.

The cohorts have collected information about young people’s maths skills at different ages in childhood and their outcomes across the life course. This longitudinal perspective provides insights into the potential long-term returns on investment in education, complementing other education research on the curriculum and classroom interventions to generate a robust evidence base on what works.

In our briefing paper, The importance of maths: evidence from the CLS cohort studies, we examine what the cohort evidence tells us about the predictive power of early maths skills, the ideal timing of policy interventions, and what policymakers can do to boost the nation’s numeracy.

Do maths skills predict later life outcomes?

In short, yes. Research from the British cohort studies has shown that maths skills measured at a variety of ages in childhood are strongly associated with later life outcomes, and in many cases, more strongly than other skills, including reading.

In the 1970 cohort, early maths skills were found the be the strongest predictors of maths and reading attainment in adolescence, out of a wide range of skills and family characteristics considered.

Maths skills also have lasting effects into adulthood. In the Next Steps cohort (born 1989-90), a ‘good pass’ in maths at GCSE increased the likelihood of gaining a university degree and reduced the likelihood of not being in education, employment or training at age 26, compared to the benefit of a ‘good pass’ in GCSE English.

And in their 30s, members of the 1958 and 1970 cohorts who had studied a maths or computing A-level earned around 10% more than their peers with a similar level of education.

What is the best timing for a policy intervention?

Evidence from the British cohort studies suggests that building foundations early is critical. Research based on the 1970 cohort found maths skills at age 10 were much more predictive of maths ability at age 16 than was the case for either spelling or vocabulary, as shown in the figure below.

Bar graph showing differences between performance in spelling, vocabulary and maths at age 16 linked to performance at age 10.

Those who do well in maths at age 10 are highly likely to go on to do well in maths at age 16, and the association between early and later maths skills is stronger than for spelling or vocabulary. Note: Test scores were measured on different scales and were therefore all standardised to aid comparability.

Research from the 1958 and 1970 cohorts found that maths skills at ages 7 and 10 remained significant predictors of adult socioeconomic status, even after accounting for later educational attainment. The Next Steps cohort (born 1989-90) are the next generation to reach a stable point in their careers, and when the age 32 data is released later this year, we look forward to seeing if the long-term benefits of early maths skills remain for younger generations.

Together, this suggests that ‘skills beget skills’, and it may be more effective to intervene early to give children a strong foundation on which to build.

How could policymakers support maths skills?

There will be many opinions across the education sector, but cohort evidence suggests that reforming the practice of ‘ability grouping’ is one way to help. Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study (born 2000-02) found that teachers (who assign children into ability groups in primary school) were more likely to underestimate the maths ability of girls, and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, relative to their scores on study-administered cognitive tests at age 7. Being placed in bottom ability groups can also have a lasting negative effect on children’s confidence and enjoyment of subjects, particularly for maths.

Other research based on MCS found evidence of a ‘maths-reading attainment gap’ in early primary school. At age 3, study-administered cognitive tests showed that numerical skills exceeded alphabetical skills. But by age 7, reading skills had surpassed overall maths ability.

The authors, from the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, suggest this could be related to the heavy focus on early literacy teaching, possibly to the detriment of maths. To combat this, they have endorsed the development of a maths equivalent to ‘phonics’, which could boost early years numeracy standards in the same way that has been done for literacy.

Finally, research from the cohort studies has consistently shown that children from families with lower resources (such as lower income or education) tend to have lower maths skills than those from more advantaged homes. Although the direction of effects is unclear, there’s reason to believe that reducing social inequalities could help to reduce inequalities in maths attainment.

Considerations for policymaking

The UK’s political parties are right to place value on improving the nation’s numeracy. Maths skills are strongly associated with going on to higher education and earning higher wages. As such, they have the power to influence not only individuals’ careers, but potentially also to boost productivity.

Evidence from the British cohort studies suggests that early intervention is likely to be successful, as early maths skills are important building blocks for later development and are likely to compound over time. Reducing social inequalities and giving maths the same focus as reading in the early years may be some of the more effective ways of doing so.

The importance of maths: evidence from the CLS cohort studies by Charlotte Booth, Claire Crawford and Vanessa Moulton was published in July 2024.

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