Intervening in maths: early, systematic and precise enough?

    Published: 25 January 2019

    What is an effective maths intervention? 

    My colleague, Gill Shearsby-Fox, and I started with this question as we began our voyage of consideration, research and discovery in the pursuit of improved maths outcomes for pupils.  We came to the question with slightly different views, Gill with her vast experience and knowledge of specific maths learning difficulties and me with a background in supporting looked after and disadvantaged pupils.  The commonality was that we found that the pupils we worked with often had gaps in their mathematical understanding, which needed to be addressed.  Although both Gill and I are huge advocates of focusing on improvements in core classroom teaching to support all pupils, we agree that, “High-quality, structured intervention is required for some pupils to make progress in maths.” (EEF, 2018)

    What do maths interventions look like in your school? 

    This was the question that we asked teachers when we started our research project.  We wanted to identify a starting point for development of maths interventions.  The responses were varied, but common themes emerged.

    In some schools, interventions were well established in other areas of the curriculum, but maths interventions were less often used and then usually immediately before an assessment point, most notably in Year 6.  There was a frustration that intervention was not earlier and a recognition that gaps in understanding impacted subsequent mathematical learning, affected pupil performance across the wider curriculum and could also lead to the development of negative attitudes towards maths.  Another problem identified was that sometimes pupils seemed to be getting on fine with their maths and then suddenly gaps appeared to open up.  

    In many schools, interventions were initiated by some kind of assessment, which was found to be useful in identifying a starting point.  However, the most commonly identified frustration from schools was that after the assessment process they had an idea as to what the gap was, but no guidance in dealing with it. 

    Schools used a variety of personnel to deliver interventions including teaching assistants, teachers and SEN staff.  One of the key problems mentioned by schools was that developing a sequence of explicit teaching for the adult delivering the intervention was limited by their ability to track back to the route of the problem and also to know the small steps needed to be built to support pupil progress.  This was especially significant when the gap in learning was further away from the child’s age appropriate learning. 

    Some schools talked about interventions that happened every afternoon to support pupils to “rapidly catchup” learning that had not been secured in the morning’s maths lesson but acknowledged that sometimes the same pupil would appear in the intervention group every day.

    Other schools talked about “off the shelf” intervention programmes which continued over a long period of time and were often delivered in small groups given the cost in terms of staff time to deliver them.  Schools identified that this meant children regularly missed the same (usually afternoon/foundation subject) lessons and that sometimes this actually acted to demotivate.

    So what does an effective maths intervention look like?

    The research is well summarised in the Improving Mathematics in Key Stages 2 & 3 Guidance Report (2018) which draws on an EEF-funded review of maths interventions conducted by Ann Dowker.  This report makes clear that an effective intervention is one which has a positive impact on pupil outcomes, but also goes on to acknowledge that, “few evaluations of maths catch-up interventions have been conducted, and an intervention with a rigorous and positive evaluation might not be available.”  So what does an effective maths intervention look like?

    • They start early for all the reasons that schools identified.
    • They are informed by what is known about effective teaching and typical development of mathematical capabilities.
    • They include explicit and systematic teaching.
    • They are carefully planned so that the person delivering them is adequately trained and well supported.
    • They ensure connections are made between intervention and whole-class instruction.
    • They should motivate pupils.
    • They should pay careful attention to what a pupil might miss if they take part in an intervention and should avoid “intervention fatigue”.

    In addition, “if pupils are really struggling with maths, the most effective response is likely to be to attain a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and target support accordingly.”  In addition, as with most changes, effective implementation is the key to success. 

    This was our starting point as we began to design a means of supporting teachers to intervene more effectively.  Using the advice offered in the EEF guidance report and what we have learnt from our extensive work in schools, we focused on using the “features common to successful interventions” to develop a diagnostic assessment to identify common gaps in mathematical understanding and to track back to provide the teaching needed to close this gap. 

    The results have been fascinating and a further blog will follow to share these. 

    To hear about the impact and receive the tools used on this project book onto the following training. 

    Tuesday 12th March (Stevenage); Intervening effectively – a place value diagnostic assessment and intervention teaching programme resource  


    Improving Mathematics in Key Stages Two and Three Guidance Report, EEF (2018), p29


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