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Little by Little one Travels Far – Peter Jarrett


An article by Peter Jarrett about the APPG on Dyscalculia.

“Little by little, one travels far” J.R.R. Tolkien

Peter Jarrett talks about the importance of the APPG on Dyscalculia and shares what the recommendations were – 

2022 is the 10th Anniversary of the BDA Dyscalculia Committee. At times it feels like nothing has happened in those 10 years and that low attainers in mathematics are some amorphous blob of around 30% of the population that are just bad at maths, dyscalculia is poorly understood and rarely recognised, and all anyone talks about is dyslexia – but not the impact that dyslexia can have on maths learning.

And then – suddenly, there is some movement, a feeling that there is a glimmer of progress, however small. The first date in the calendar was the 16th March 2022. It was a pretty busy news day, as many are these days. But tucked away amongst the highlights, Dyscalculia and Maths Learning Difficulties were discussed within Parliament, at the Dyslexia and Other SpLD’s All Party Parliamentary Group, the first time the dyscalculia community has had the opportunity for this level of exposure to policy makers.

The hope had been to hold the event in Parliament, but for a variety of reasons that was not possible. We settled for an online event. Normally around 50 to 70 people attend this event. 140 turned up for the APPG on Dyscalculia, both a message and a record attendance. A parliamentarian called Matt Hancock MP asked if he could speak first about his private members bill about universal screening and teacher training around dyslexia. This is a good thing; we should be supportive. However, the point was passionately made that any universal screening should also include maths learning difficulties. As a side note, this is something that has been followed up with Matt Hancock MP. He has assured me that he recognises the need to offer the same for maths learning difficulties, but his initial focus is on dyslexia (authors note: because dyslexia is all anyone talks about).

The intent for the presentation at the APPG was to draw attention to the complex impacts of dyscalculia and maths learning difficulties across the life course.

Dr Steve Chinn provided an overview of dyscalculia, of wider maths learning difficulties, and maths anxiety. Steve’s depth of knowledge and pragmatic approach to conceptualising dyscalculia provided an opportunity to recognise “the word ‘definition’ in psychology rarely quantifies precisely”. This warning of fuzziness because of the heterogeneity of humans and the complex systems involved in arithmetic and mathematics can create difficulties when looking for an approach to strategy and policy.

However, Steve points out that maths is developmental, and a failure to ‘get’ foundational knowledge, or to commit to long term memory will lead to years of failure.

Steve then made two vital observations that underpin what meaningful interventions should look like.

What works for the ‘outliers’ will often be of benefit to many more learners. This has implications for intervention and for prevention, and could reduce the number of pupils who need small group or individual help.

Intervention for older students will almost certainly need to go back to the basics, and be presented in an age appropriate way. Just what the content of the intervention is will depend on diagnosis and then there will need to be an ongoing diagnostic approach as teaching progresses.

Steve went on to talk about the value of visualisation in supporting embedding in long term memory and building understanding.

Steve’s final words of wisdom:

Train teachers to teach maths as it is to learners as they are.

The second speaker was Adele Tracey, a Team GB athlete and the current GB Indoor 1500m champion. Adele also works as a successful mark-up artist. Adele has dyslexia and dyscalculia and is an ambassador for the British Dyslexia Association.

It is essential, and common sense, to listen to people with a condition such as dyscalculia. It is increasingly common for people in the public eye, those whose voice is most listened to, to identify as dyslexic. We are not yet there with dyscalculia. Adele explained how her difficulties with numbers percolate through every aspect of her life. This goes as far as challenging her understanding of distances and therefore time intervals within her training – in her words it is always there. It impacts on her conceptualisation of time and her organisational abilities, which as an athlete are large parts of her daily existence. It creates anxiety, requires deep thinking for the easiest tasks, and amplifies a feeling of difference.

For Adele, it is important that dyscalculia and specific learners in general are better understood. She is exactly the type of advocate that is needed, successful, articulate, and passionate. Where Adele succeeds is making her difficulties very relevant to everyone’s life although she recognises that other abilities have bestowed an element of privilege upon her.

Since the APPG there has been a very positive determination amongst adults with Dyscalculia to advocate for themselves and to support others who have similar difficulties to manage both the emotional side of managing difference, but ‘life hacks’ that help. A recent article by Rhodri Marsden in The I explains this well What is dyscalculia? Why a blind spot for maths can be as problematic as dyslexia and the disability explained (inews.co.uk).

Two of the interviewees, Pete Cherry and Emily Gee have been active campaigners for better understanding and support of people with dyscalculia and work closely with organisations such as The Dyscalculia Network Homepage (dyscalculianetwork.com).

I was very honoured to deliver the final presentation The intent was to make the link between the lack of awareness of dyscalculia and the apparent deeper understanding of the causes behind low numeracy in the UK. The Government has announced the £560 million Multiply programme focusing on low attaining adults. According to the UK government, 17 miliion adults in England – half of the working-age population – have everyday maths skills roughly equivalent to those expected of a primary school child. Low numeracy costs the UK economy £20.2 billion, about 1.3% (one point three percent) of GDP – ironically, the evidence for the impact of low numeracy is number heavy – it is hard for many to conceptualise the magnitude of the numbers involved.

But what do we actually know about these people? As Steve Chinn pointed out, the barriers to mathematics learning are complex and are on a spectrum – or, I would argue, several spectrums – number sense, executive function, environment, confidence, literacy and return on investment from study. Matt Hancock MP advocated for the screening of dyslexia as soon a reasonable in schools. Why not then screening for numeracy difficulties at the same time? The widely accepted view is that dyscalculia impacts between 5 and 7% (five and seven percent) of the population, the equivalent of the population of Greater Manchester and Lancashire, and that wider maths learning difficulties may impact up to 15% (fifteen percent)  of the population. The ability to use well meant and appropriate screening tools and then to apply well meant and appropriate interventions will not only benefit those with specific learning difficulties but also the wider range of low attaining learners. After all, as we all know:

Good SEND Teaching is good teaching!

Our recommendations to the policy makers that were at the event were:

  • Establish official recognition for dyscalculia. Official government recognition would help policymakers, parents, and schools act. It cannot be left to non-governmental bodies. The US and Italy have laws requiring intervention for dyscalculia.
  • Promote the use of reliable screening tools and interventions in education and the workplace.
  • Train teachers, other education professionals, and parents in what dyscalculia is and what it is not, and how to support it, especially using concrete manipulatives, a focus on foundational concepts, and the procedural skills using formal representations of arithmetic.
  • Ensure that dyscalculia is considered when developing initiatives around adult numeracy, financial literacy and skills development.

It appears that we have been well received – we might not yet be at the top table with regards to policy, but we are beginning to have conversations that are positive.

“Little by little, one travels far!”

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