Developing early maths – our journey so far

    Published: 21 September 2021

    Where we began

    We have been thinking about how best to support practitioners with developing children’s early number for a good number of years. It was initially explored as part of our KS1 Mental Fluency Project. Since first launching in 2015, over 500 pupils across 88 schools in Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire participated.

    Schools participating in these 6-week projects had some fantastic achievements in both pupil confidence and attainment:


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    Where we went from there

    From this, we began to think about the step before the learning focused upon in the Fluency Project. In September 2017, Deborah Mulroney wrote her blog ‘Ever thought about what comes before counting?’.

    In this blog, she introduces us to two of the four skills we consider to be the essential foundations to counting – pattern and subitising. The other two skills are comparison and classification.

    In another blog by Deborah in Oct 2018, ‘So this is what comes before counting’, she explains...

    From the outset, we knew we needed to explore the mathematical learning that comes before the memorisation of number labels and numerals in a way that would help all adults working with young learners to build broad and deep understanding of number. Early skills need to be embedded from the beginning and the practitioners in the pilot told us that breaking up the curriculum into the four simple areas allowed them to plan for provision with improved opportunities and greater consistency. They were able to use the criteria to plan and assess in a much more focused way and gained confidence from the detailed progression included within Essential Foundations for Counting.


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    Essential Foundations for Counting launched in Autumn 2018.

    The booklets provide practical ideas and activities to help practitioners with mathematical provision for children upwards of 2 years old in the Early Years Foundation Stage.

    It was at this point that the first draft of the new Early Learning Goals for Foundation stage was released and we were thrilled to see...

    Children are not asked to “count reliably numbers 1 to 20…” anymore but to:

    “Have an understanding of number to 10, linking names, numerals, their value and their position in the counting order” - Yes! It’s all about the value behind the numerals at last.

    “Subitise (recognise quantities without counting) up to 5”

    Well we certainly thought this was important enough for its own booklet!

    “Explore patterns of numbers within numbers up to 10…” and the list goes on.

    We began to think there was a DfE mole in the room when we were creating these resources!

    Where we are now

    The final version of the Early Learning Goals that have become statutory this September were finalised earlier this year and are slightly different to the original ones piloted but subitising, comparison and pattern still feature heavily and the Educational programme for Mathematics in the Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage states:

    “Mathematics - Developing a strong grounding in number is essential so that all children develop the necessary building blocks to excel mathematically. Children should be able to count confidently, develop a deep understanding of the numbers to 10, the relationships between them and the patterns within those numbers.”

    And the new Early Learning Goal for maths are:

    ELG: number

    Children at the expected level of development will:

    • have a deep understanding of number to 10, including the composition of each number;
    • subitise (recognise quantities without counting) up to 5;
    • automatically recall (without reference to rhymes, counting or other aids) number bonds up to 5 (including subtraction facts) and some number bonds to 10, including double facts

    ELG: Numerical Patterns

    Children at the expected level of development will:

    • verbally count beyond 20, recognising the pattern of the counting system;
    • compare quantities up to 10 in different contexts, recognising when one quantity is greater than, less than or the same as the other quantity;
    • explore and represent patterns within numbers up to 10, including evens and odds, double facts and how quantities can be distributed equally

    We believe that the skills within the Essential foundations for counting resource have stood the test of time and are the skills that our youngest children need to master before they can work towards the end of foundation stage goals.

    This need for solid foundations was experienced by two Reception Class Teachers, Michelle Sinnott and Terri Compton from Ashtree Primary School in Hertfordshire, who have very kindly shared their experience of using the resource.

    ‘How many of us get to a point with our children where we are not sure where to go next? They’ve hit a brick wall, you’ve tried every professional strategy that you can and still they are not making the progress that you hope to see.

    We had this very same issue in our first half term. A significant amount of our Reception children were just not grasping counting in sequence, let alone recognising numerals to 5 or counting the correct quantity! We had attempted our tried and tested methods of number songs and games using their interests and yet we were seemingly getting no further.

    After some mild panic (!!) we decided that we had to STOP and look deeper into where the gaps were in their mathematical understanding. As a Reception team, we looked into the pre-number skills using ‘Essential Foundations for Counting’. It became quickly apparent that the children were lacking in their understanding of grouping, sorting, matching and memory.

    We made a brave decision to effectively scrap our previously successful maths plans and embed these essential skills throughout both Adult Led and Child Initiated Learning. We decided to stop using numeral flashcards and instead provided plenty of sorting and matching tasks with the mathematical language being consistently modelled by all adults. We used memory games to further enhance their working memory and sung various number songs using visual aids as a support.

    After three weeks, we re-introduced the children to numeral flashcards in their Adult Led sessions to see if these skills had made an impact. 6 out of the 8 children were then able to recognise, order, sequence and count objects to at least 5.

    As a result of this positive impact, we have already made the decision that next September we will adapt our maths planning to incorporate the ‘Essentials Foundations for Counting’ from the outset.

    As a team, this success has motivated us all to feel confident to include strategies outside of our own year group in other areas of learning.

    Sometimes you just have to take a few steps backwards to leap forwards!’

    We completely agree with this sentiment, of sometimes needing to take a few steps back before going forwards. Without secure foundations, all other learning is going to be a bit shaky!

    Therefore, the next step in our journey to build on the Essential Foundations for Counting was to create our Reception ESSENTIALmaths resources and training. We are proud to report that we have now trained in excess of 200 teachers and we have received positive reports on the impact these resources are having on teachers' ability to ensure the children do have a strong grounding in number and despite the disruptions to children’s education over the last 18 months, children are moving onto the next stage of learning with firm foundations in place.

    Lianne Holmes, an EYFS teacher from Aston St Mary’s, fed back to us about the Reception ESSENTIALmaths materials, stating:

    “I know it has been said a lot but I can’t stress how good ESSENTIALmaths for Reception has been for the strong grounding in number. We have seen a massive impact. There are lots of opportunities to add in shape, space and measure through the activities they suggest.”

    The resources were written to ensure that the progression through the learning led to the new Early Learning Goals so are September 2021 ready!

    To find out more about the resources and training, read the blog I wrote in December 2020.

    Don’t worry if you missed the spring and summer training opportunities. We are repeating the training for Reception ESSENTIALmaths again in the Autumn term 2021.

    Where we are going next

    We are currently in the process of updating the Essential Foundations for Counting to reflect the changes to the Foundation Stage curriculum and these will be available in the autumn term. We strongly believe that the original criteria we wrote and the exemplifications we included in the booklets are still relevant despite the changes that have been made to the EYFS framework, so these haven’t changed.

    The booklets are NOT a nursery scheme of work but as Michelle and Terri said above, the criteria and exemplification within them provide clear guidance on ensuring the children have plenty of opportunity to develop the foundations across the whole provision.

    We have slim-lined the resource so that there is now only one booklet for each skill – Group recognition (Subitising), Pattern, Comparison and Classification – and have made reference to the new mathematics educational programme. We have also created digital training to support the implementation of the resource. The updated version of the booklets and the training will be available in the autumn term.

    As a team, we have learned a lot about early number development and I personally truly believe that if we get the foundations right and close gaps in the early years, the number of children who struggle with maths or have maths anxiety as they move through their education will decrease and the idea of it being ok to be bad at maths will fade away… I have all my fingers and toes crossed!


    DfE, Published: 31 March 2021 Effective: 1 September 2021, Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five.

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