UCL Institute of Education drew on their research network to find out how maths departments were adapting to closures and what they need to do it better. Here’s what they found

When schools closed to the majority of pupils earlier this year, the immediate challenge for teachers was how best to enable pupils’ learning to continue. With our ongoing research into attainment grouping on hold, we were keen to understand how maths teachers were adapting their practices for remote teaching and to gather information that might be helpful for planning for future closure mitigation measures.

In May, we sent a survey to the heads of maths at schools participating in the Student Grouping Study and followed up in June with interviews. By this point, schools had had some time to put arrangements for remote teaching into place. We asked the participants about provision for and pupil participation in Year 7. We were particularly interested in what schools were aiming to provide and how this differed by pupil prior attainment and by disadvantage. In total, 49 maths leads completed the survey and 17 were interviewed.

We found that maths departments were taking broadly one of three approaches to remote teaching: continuing to follow their existing curriculum as planned; following it at a slower pace and/or with reduced content; or aiming to review and consolidate previous learning. Now that schools are open to all or most pupils, this means that they are facing quite different challenges as they reopen. The government’s and others’ responses to mitigating the effects of school closures – including the National Tutoring Programme – will need to be sensitive to these differing needs.

Schools need clear guidelines so that safeguarding concerns don’t restrict opportunities

Schools with established online learning practices and infrastructure were able most readily to move to blended learning, whereas schools in which such approaches were not established reported obstacles to finding strategies they felt could work. Schools have now been asked to devise plans so that remote learning can be put immediately into place if any pupils are required to self-isolate. Our research underlines that these approaches should, as far as possible, be integrated into schools’ ‘normal’ classroom practice and curriculum offer, so that the transition between school and home learning is as smooth as possible.

Many maths departments depended on maths websites that offer videos and automatically-marked tests. However, this meant very limited opportunities for pupils to engage in mathematical talk, metacognitive activities or receive formative feedback. In addition, pupils often had very few chances to interact with teachers and with each other during their learning. Almost none of the schools we spoke to facilitated live interactions between pupils, with many citing safeguarding concerns rather than technical issues. Software developers should be encouraged to develop guidance for teachers to facilitate teacher-pupil interaction during future closures and website developers need to consider ways of facilitating interactions and personalised feedback. Schools also need clear guidelines so that legitimate safeguarding concerns do not unnecessarily restrict opportunities for learning.

Like much research already published about learning during lockdown, we found that pupil participation was unequal. As well as Year 7 pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, those with low prior attainment were participating less and, when they were participating, were less engaged. This was due not just to limited access to technology, but also lower levels of parental involvement with school work, as well as new personal or family-related challenges faced by vulnerable pupils during the lockdown.

We found that low attainers and other disadvantaged pupils also faced significantly greater restrictions in their opportunity to learn maths during lockdown. These restrictions included a reduction in the scaffolding or additional adult support available to low prior attainers, and being offered a more limited range of task types and resources. Recovery curricula and interventions should not simply focus on a rush to catch up or remedial teaching but should also include more challenging mathematical work and a focus on all the fundamentals of mathematics.

Like all teachers, maths departments faced a huge struggle in developing remote teaching at short notice, and a lot was achieved in a short period of time. Now that we have time to reflect, teachers need to adopt – and be supported to adopt – strategies that enable more pupils to experience positive outcomes, whether teaching is classroom-based or remote.


UCL Institute of Education’s full report, Remote mathematics teaching during COVID-19: intentions, practices and equity can be read here