The national curriculum for maths is not inclusive


Karen McGuigan presents research which demonstrates that an alternative approach to the GCSE Maths curriculum can have benefits for learners with SEN in England.

This English GCSE-focused curriculum is not inclusive. It is designed for a neurotypical average student and, in most cases, will be the most challenging maths students ever do. Teaching methods rely heavily on the use of short, long and working memory and many children with learning difficulties have challenges with one or more of these memory functions. To enable them to learn effectively, they need a different approach. They need an alternative pathway that enables them to secure the simple, functional, and relevant maths they need to use in everyday life.

The current National Curriculum for Mathematics is designed to achieve a GCSE. The GCSE syllabus is divided up into eleven years of schooling with the government advising the content, structure, and order to be covered year on year. Most mainstream schools nowadays purchase an off the shelf scheme of work to follow. They provide lesson plans, videos, worksheets, homework, and some even offer ‘differentiated’ levels of bronze, silver, and gold challenges. They advocate ‘learning blocks’ – study a topic for several weeks and then move on. But don’t worry if you don’t get it, they will review everything you were meant to have learnt this year in a brief review session next year. It is like a skyscraper; students move up a floor every year. The issue is that, instead of taking the stairs and securing each incremental step, students can just hop in the lift and skip levels. They can take that lift right to the top, sit their GCSE, fail it, take a re-sit, fail that too. It’s only at this point they are offered an alternative path. “Why don’t you try Functional Skills maths at college?”

“Systematic curricular approaches give pupils with SEND and disadvantaged pupils a better chance of success.” – OFSTED, Research review series: mathematics, May 2021.

There is an alternative to GCSE maths already in existence – the Functional Skills qualification – however, these are considered adult qualifications and largely only available after a student has failed at GCSE twice. The overwhelming majority of mainstream schools do not offer Functional Skills qualifications as they do not contribute to their ‘Progress 8’ score. Functional Skills are not on the DfE approved list of qualifications used to calculate a pupil’s Attainment 8 score.

The concept and structure of the Functional Skills qualification are more suited to students with SEN. They are based on everyday life scenarios. Teaching and assessments can be delivered flexibly. There are five levels of attainment that students can work through and achieve. Ofqual has confirmed that there is no restriction on the Functional Skills qualification being used for younger students. However, all current awarding bodies focus on the adult market and existing content is not age appropriate for schools – primary or secondary. Without Government support and sanction there is no appetite, motivation, or commercial gain to invest in a different approach.

Figure 1

And even if the Government supported the concept, the last national curriculum maths change took five years from Michael Gove’s commissioned review in 2010 to roll out in schools in 2015.

Lance is 10 years old. He has Down syndrome. In five years’ time he will be doing his GCSEs. It is already too late for him. 

It is a good job for Lance that his Mum saw this when he started school and has designed a path for him to follow. The Maths For Life programme aims to provide a ‘functional’ path for students from pre-school to enable them to work towards the Functional Skills qualification from the onset of their schooling. Making the best use of their eleven years of maths education by focusing on understanding relevant life maths and ability to complete independently.

Figure 2

The Maths For Life programme can be implemented at school, college or at home. The age neutral approach to content means that it is accessible to all students from infants up to adults. It is currently in use at both mainstream and specialist settings at all educational levels – preschool, primary, secondary, and further educational college. It is recommended by the London Borough of Barnet for all students with Down syndrome.

Not only is the programme providing structure and content, Maths For Life is also taking the time to gather research on the maths learning profiles of students with SEN. Project Baseline launched over a year ago to establish an accurate view on mathematical attainment – considering not only the understanding of a mathematical concept but the ability to apply it independently. Using the Hierarchy of Independence, educators completed a baseline assessment with a student and submitted it for review (see figure 1). Supported by the Down syndrome community, the project has already amassed a large amount of data on students with Down syndrome. The analysis was recently presented at the Down Syndrome Research Forum as part of a Maths Symposium with UCL and Surrey University.

Figure 3

The overall attainment graphs (figure 2 & 3) show that there is continuous learning throughout primary school but the rate of learning plateaus in secondary school – whether mainstream or special. In primary school the rate of attainment is higher in KS1 than KS2. This suggests that a lack of differentiation or a tailored path to follow is a limiting factor to attainment.

Trends at a maths topic level (figure 4) have identified strengths and weaknesses across all students with Down syndrome. Conservation of numbers, cardinality in a non-linear format, subtraction, understanding of time passing and value of money have all been highlighted as topics of significant weakness. The Maths For Life programme is designed to ensure that these gaps, and all the foundations building blocks, are secured to enable attainment to continue onwards.

Figure 4

Starting in February 2021, a collaboration with the Down’s Syndrome Oxford charity group began. The goal was to run a year-long pilot to assess the impact of a parent-led Maths For Life programme on students ranging from age 4 to 18, attending both mainstream and specialist education settings.

Out of the 23 students who completed the programme, 100% demonstrated an improvement in overall mathematical attainment and increased independence at the +12-month review point. With the baseline data as a reference, the age adjusted attainment shows a positive impact, with primary age children improving by between 18 and 24 months on their peer averages. (Figure 5)

Figure 5

The Maths For Life programme is now being used for students with learning difficulties as well as an ‘intervention’ programme for those students affected by Covid.

‘’Our staff have found the resources easy to access, clear and strategically broken down into achievable targets. The children have benefitted and made progress where concepts are abstract, and love using the resources and ideas through Maths for Life.” – Emily Osabu-Matthews, SENDCo, Danegrove Primary School

The Maths For Life programme opens the world of maths to a range of learners for whom the national curriculum timescale and structure just doesn’t work. It provides instant support to educators and helps those with learning difficulties develop the essential maths they need for life; improving their self-esteem, encouraging independence, and increasing their potential to achieve gainful employment as an adult.

Karen McGuigan

Karen McGuigan is an education consultant with a goal to improve the image and attainment levels in maths for everyone.Inspired by her middle son Lance, who has Down syndrome, she has developed the Maths For Life programme. It is a differentiated approach to teaching maths that is designed for students with additional learning needs, for whom the standard maths national curriculum structure and timescale is unattainable.
Twitter: @themathsmum
Facebook: @TheMathsMum
Instagram: @themathsmum


  1. Just to clarify. Where the ‘National Curriculum’ is referred to in this article, I am assuming this is the National Curriculum for England? Referring to it only as National Curriculum could be confusing for parents/professionals living in other areas of the UK who have a different National Curriculum.


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