We need a plan to stop 30,000 young mathematicians going missing

Striking new research shows many promising young maths pupils give up on the subject soon after they start secondary, explains Kathryn Greenhalgh

Striking new research shows many promising young maths pupils give up on the subject soon after they start secondary, explains Kathryn Greenhalgh

16 Jan 2024, 5:00

Everything we do to help students understand maths, to prepare them for tough questions or even to learn to love maths counts. We hear calls in the national media for ‘more’ maths or to learn maths for longer, which could give the impression that nothing is improving, but the truth is that all the work being done across the mathematical landscape to improve maths outcomes is in fact adding up.

Is it a tough subject? Yes it is, but it is vital for our students’ future life chances. Doors open, career routes emerge and opportunities to excel present themselves to those who can master maths, wherever they come from. And besides, that it is challenging only means that when pupils really get maths they get an even greater sense of achievement.

Students know this. That’s why we are seeing more pupils leaving primary school able to reason and problem-solve mathematically, and why mathematics is (and has been for some time) the most popular A level. 

I am privileged to see much of that high-quality teaching every day in my work leading 29 maths departments at Outwood Grange Academies Trust. I share the joy with teachers daily of seeing their students ‘getting it’ for the first time.

And as chair of the National Maths Hubs Council, I know without a doubt that we have many excellent maths teachers constantly developing their professional skills to deliver some of the best maths lessons in the world.

Maths Hubs are working closely with engaged secondary schools to support teaching for mastery and around transition from primary to secondary, delivering research-led, high-quality professional development for excellent maths leadership and teaching. They work with leaders on coherent curriculum design to build towards the toughest areas of maths. They provide enhanced support to those schools and regions who need it. In time, this will drive huge improvement.

A disproportionate number are from disadvantaged backgrounds

Can we do more? Of course we can. We need more of those enthusiastic and engaging maths experts in front of our students and we need to retain the priceless ones we already have. We want to keep maths A level as an exciting top choice and that means looking for new ways to nurture existing talent within our schools.

To that end, striking new research from Axiom Maths points to a key challenge that policy makers should be focusing their efforts on.

The findings, published today, suggest we are losing 30,000 promising maths pupils every year, soon after they start their secondary school career. What’s worse is that a disproportionate number are from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is an unconscionable waste of potential.

We should not be letting any maths pupil go missing. We need to urgently look at the findings and pinpoint the factors that contribute to this drop-off when promising primary maths students start at secondary school.

I welcome Axiom’s offer to directly fund ‘maths champions’ to identify and nurture talented students who are already within our schools and encourage them to stick at it and aim high. Schools can easily apply to be one of the first adopters to get their package of support, and I am pleased to say that the students across our trust who have engaged with the Axiom approach absolutely love it.

This is yet another example, alongside the maths hubs and the push for more maths, of fresh momentum behind subject. I hope it’s also another sign of the start of a cultural shift away from normalising being ‘bad at maths’ to a nation celebrating all that it offers.

It’s a shift that must happen, because maths is the future. Workplaces and industries consume more data than ever and mathematical thinking is at the heart of all our technological advances. Securing that shift and meeting that need mean we urgently need a formula to convert those missing 30,000 maths pupils into so many success stories.

More from this theme


How a billionaire plans to make English pupils ‘world’s best at maths’

UK's biggest taxpayer has already committed £25 million to boost maths attainment. So who is he and what's the...

John Dickens

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *