Maths: it’s an attitude

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Being good at supporting early years children to develop early mathematical skills is as much about your attitude to the subject as it is about your knowledge.

Numeracy (the ability to understand and work with numbers) is one of the key skills needed in life. We use maths in every aspect of our lives, at work and in practical everyday activities, at home and beyond.

At Work - Giving correct change, weighing and measuring, using spreadsheets or understanding data

In practical - everyday activities Working out how many minutes until the train or increasing a recipe to serve extra guests, knowing how much paint to buy to paint a room

As consumers - Understanding how much you’ll save with a 15% discount, checking you’ve received the right change or working out a tip in a restaurant

Managing finances - Setting and keeping to a budget, understanding interest rates, understanding the implications of getting a loan, saving for a holiday

As parents - Helping children with homework, playing board and puzzle games

Understanding the world around us - Makings sense of statistics and graphs in the news, understanding information on government spending

However, here in the UK we have a long term and increasing issue with low levels of numeracy in the adult population. While things are improving around literacy, with around 57% of working age adults in England holding a skill level equivalent to GCSE "C" grade or above (up from 44% over the last 8 years), only 22% of working age adults hold a skill level equivalent to GCSE "C" grade or above in maths. And this is down by around 4% in 8 years (1).

Why does this matter?

Lower levels of numeracy are linked to lower wages and lower health outcomes. And it is estimated that low levels of numeracy cost the UK as a whole around £20 billion each year (3).

The EYFS learning outcomes for Number and for Shape, Space and Measure continue to be the third and fourth least attained areas for children to reach an expected level of development. Low achievements in these two areas can often result in children not achieving a good level of development overall. Finally, the gap between low and high achievers in maths is greater than in any other subject (4). This is one of the reasons why the current Early Years inspection handbook specifically talks about children securely understanding early mathematical concepts.

Pupils beginning secondary school with very low numeracy skills but good literacy skills

have an exclusion rate twice that of pupils starting secondary school with good numeracy skills (5)

Poor numeracy costs individuals in the UK on average £460 a year (6)

So what’s causing this situation?

One of the biggest factors for the UK’s poor maths outcomes is attitudes. We are one of the very few western countries where being ‘bad’ at maths is socially acceptable and at times almost expected. How often have you heard people say ‘I can’t do maths’ or ‘I never got maths at school’ and laugh about it? We don’t do this with other key skills, in fact when it comes to literacy people will go out of their way to cover up if they struggle with reading or writing. Maths is somehow seen as the preserve of the nerdy, or for the gifted few. In fact nearly 30% of people believe that being good at maths is an innate ‘gift’ (ever heard people say ‘I just don’t have a math brain?) rather than a skill that can be learnt (7). It’s not innate, in case you were wondering, it can be learnt, just like every other skill we become good at in life. But without the confidence and competence to tackle mathematics regularly in their early years, children will miss out on important building blocks to their future learning.

There are many reasons for these attitudes to maths, including having bad experiences of maths at school, anxiety around using maths and a lack of support for adults to change views they may have developed in their younger years. In fact, as many as 1 in 4 adults don’t feel that maths at school prepared them for using maths in everyday life and this has a knock on impact on how they view maths as important for getting on in life (8).

Unfortunately for millions of adults and children in the UK, ‘I can’t do maths’ has become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Believing that maths isn’t important or describing yourself as being ‘bad’ at maths blocks the ability for the UK to improve its maths outcomes for the next generation. If we are to support the children in our care to become good at maths we need to have a clear and honest look at our own attitudes to maths, and those of our teams.

The solution?

One of the biggest things you can do is not to perpetuate the story that ‘maths doesn’t matter’ or that being bad at maths is ‘ok’ or ‘normal’.

Be positive about maths around the children you care for (even if underneath it all you don’t feel positive!). Support parents also to be positive about maths; they are, after all, children’s first educators.

Work together to try hard not to say things like, ‘It’s ok, I never got maths’ or, ‘I don’t like maths either’ or ‘Maths is hard’. Think of it in the same way as not passing on phobias about spiders. If children grow up in an environment where maths is seen as important and possible for all (not just those who are ‘gifted’), then one of the biggest hurdles to start the journey to better maths outcomes will have been jumped.

If leaders, staff and parents can help to equip young children with a ‘can do’ attitude around maths, giving them the confidence to try things out and discover new skills in the same way they do for other areas of learning, we will have made a massive step in the right direction.

Three top tips, that will make a big difference

Be positive about maths. Don't say things like, "I can’t do maths"

or, "I hated maths at school"

Point out the maths in everyday life. Include children in activities

involving maths such as using money, cooking, travelling or finding

the correct house number.

Praise children for effort rather than talent - this shows them that

by working hard they can always improve.

To find out more about how you can start to be more positive about maths watch this short video from National Numeracy:

If you would like support to help your team to become more maths positive and confident with the children in your setting, have a look at the Cambridge Early Years Website.


1,2,3, 5, 6, 7, 8, – National Numeracy website

4 - Early years foundation stage profile results in England, 2019, DFE

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