Do you really need GCSE Maths grade C to have a laugh or do a sum?

I am very pleased to be able to represent LEYF as a member of Professor Cathy Nutbrown’s Expert Panel. The Panel is examining the standard and range of qualifications for those working in Early Years settings.  It’s a hot topic and one that needs calm, rational and measured consideration.  It’s also an issue that powerfully demonstrates that rhetoric and good intentions don’t always translate well into practice, and no solution will be perfect.  And it further requires a steady and pragmatic hand which Cathy certainly has.

Before anyone gets excited about being called an expert, the actual reality of being on a panel is that you are expected to do some work and research an issue or two.  At the last meeting, I agreed to examine the question of whether it is necessary for those entering the profession to have a grade C in GCSE Maths and English. In order to do it justice, I sought some support from my friend Sue, who put her considerable research skills to good use finding out whether or not having these grades leads to better teaching of the subjects, higher thinking skills and greater ability to apply abstract concepts in a range of situations. I also needed to know that if having a Grade C was essential, could we get everyone up to that standard through Continuing Professional Development (CPD), and would it create barriers to potential apprentices, trainees and other staff from diverse communities.

What we found was that although research from OECD and EPPE tells us that higher qualified staff offer a more reliable predictor of better quality – with a more positive impact on children’s future learning and development as a result – there is little data to securely support the correlation between the levels of formal qualifications in literacy and numeracy among Early Years practitioners and children’s achievements. The best we could find was the Millennium Cohort Study which stressed the links between quality of provision in a setting, the level of qualifications of the staff and the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) analysed by subject, concluding that…

Continued priority needs to be given to strengthening the non-graduate early years workforce, who continue to make up the majority of staff. All practitioners need to have a clear grasp of how children’s understanding of mathematics develops; they need to be comfortable with mathematical language and able to support children’s play as outlined in the previous section on effective mathematical pedagogy.” Milleniun Cohort Study

The most interesting findings emphasised something our tutor for Key Skills previously said, namely how the psychological barrier people have created about Maths is often the greater hurdle to them getting a grade C.  I recently saw this in action among a group of otherwise experienced LEYF staff who needed to get a grade C in Maths as part of their degrees; the level of anxiety this generated, despite us providing specialist workshops, was such that even a chocolate fest could not reduce the waves of panic in the room. (Not even the promise of our favourite Curly Wurly!) The lack of enthusiasm for Maths, often acquired from poor teaching, creates a self perpetuating cycle which flies in the face of the Williams Review(DCSF 2008a) which found that…

One of the distinctive features that support high quality mathematical learning includes practitioners’ enthusiasm for, understanding of, and confidence in, mathematics.” Williams Review

For those of us running nursery businesses, the lack of mathematical confidence has greater implications, given the need to grasp Maths in action through an ability to understand and manage occupancy, staff deployment, pricing and basic income and expenditure; all critical skills needed to keep the business going.  (Sadly, I have seen far too many nurseries slip into disaster because of the manager’s inability to read the numbers.) And I know this statement will send Hitchcock shivers down the spines of some LEYF staff, in fact I’m sure most would much rather sit through the Director’s Cut of Psycho in a dark room on their own than do the books.

But if we see our job in Early Years as being the educators of the youngest children, and therefore needing to inculcate in them positive attitudes about Maths and literacy (especially Maths), then we have to look at the bigger picture and the costs to society. The CBI Education and Skills Survey 2011 reported that employers found widespread weaknesses in the core skills of their employees, with almost half reporting problems with literacy and numeracy. KPMG estimates that the cost to the public purse each year from failure to master basic numeracy skills is up to £2.4 billion.

So what to do? Luckily I am not Cathy Nutbrown, and my task was to merely present ideas and information, whilst Cathy gets to analyse and draw a conclusion.  Still, she is ably assisted by our Civil Servants, who I am sure have all the relevant C grades. In the meantime, I suggest we all ensure we have regular planned Maths activities, lots of Maths in the routine and that we practise our timetables while we do our Pilates.  If all fruit fails then watch Dara O Briain’s School of Hard Sums (formerly called ‘Dara O Briain’s University of Practical Mathematics’) where humour and numbers mix. Why not? Have a laugh, do a sum!


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  1. #1 by Nicola Amies. Director of Early Years, Bright Horizons on April 17, 2012 - 7:55 pm

    June, as always a pithy blog that’s grounded in the reality of our world. I do question how well a GCSE Maths at C or above equips staff for supporting mathematical learning in the early years. I’m frequently amazed at how many staff who have the ‘required Maths qualification’ can’t use correct maths language with children. I despair when I see staff holding up a pyramid and telling children ‘ this is a triangle’ sadly many are graduates who are held up as pedagogical leaders. Of course I love it when a child speaks up and corrects the staff member. Who is leading who? Before we leap into the solution of a Maths GCSE at c or above being the way to upskill the workforce let’s think about other solutions. I’d like to see practical maths being a core element of an Early Childhood qualification – well taught and assessed of course. When I taught on Nursery Nursing courses we would have fun learning about early years maths – maths in a jam sandwich, maths in a tube of smarties, maths in a fruit sald, a maths walk. was it on the syllabus – no, was it needed – yes. Like you I found learners went into a mild panic with a look of fear in their eyes when I talked about maths. We had a responsibility to ensure that learners left us with enthusiasm, confidence and the knowledge to support early maths so that they could cultivate and grow confident mathematicians. Of course there is an important need to have a firm understanding of maths to manage budgets, occupancy, forecasting, Free Entitlement funding, milk returns and excel spreadsheets. A CPD in maths for managing a nursery business could be the solution. A CPD unit that is accredited as equivilent to a Maths GCSE at grade c and above would provide partity and not deter so many passionate, highly skilled and knowledgeable staff from continuing their learning journey.

    • #2 by June O'Sullivan on April 17, 2012 - 9:49 pm


      Thank you for taking the time out of your busy week to reply to this. I agree and the fear is that often policy and practice is influenced not by relevant research and data but by instinct and anecdote. The business of GCSE at C grade is a case in point and everyone nods sagely and says oh we must have Grade C but there is no real rationale for taking that pathway. I agree its better to recruit for attitude and train for skills and good quality CPD from a licenced service provider would be a good way of getting people the right skills and knowledge that will ensure we get the right people in the right seat on the right bus, ( if I am allowed to misquote Jim Collins)!



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  • Leadership Skills in the Early Years, June O'Sullivan (Continuum 2009)

    Leadership Skills in the Early Years, June O'Sullivan (Continuum 2009)

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