Early years maths programme boosts children's development

Friday, July 20, 2018

Three-year-olds who took part in a scheme to improve maths teaching in early years settings made the equivalent of two extra months’ progress on average compared to other children, research suggests.

Run by the National Day Nurseries Association, Maths Champions is a one-year programme led by a graduate practitioner in each nursery.

Academics from York and Durham universities worked with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to evaluate the programme, which was delivered in 108 nurseries to 628 children between May 2016 and August 2017. 

The EEF funded the programme because children’s early maths ability is linked with attainment in maths and other subjects later in life, and because maths is an area that many early years settings struggle with, and where the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is particularly large.

Prior to the rollout of this project, NDNA worked with Oxford University to carry out an audit of the scheme.  

Participating nurseries in the research study were mainly from deprived areas. Nurseries in the trial had on average three graduate staff members, with 8 per cent pupils eligible for the Early Years Pupil Premium. Nurseries allocated a graduate practitioner to be a ‘Maths Champion’, who was trained to audit maths practice in the nursery and work with staff to improve the maths learning at the setting.

Nurseries in the study were allocated to two groups: half that took part in the Maths Champions programme (intervention group) and half that did not (control group).  

The final evaluation involved 96 settings, 44 nurseries that took part in the Champions programme and 50 in the control group.

Children in participating nurseries were eligible for the programme if they were three-years-old and attended nursery for a minimum of 15 hours a week, and were due to start school in September 2017.


Primary analysis results from the programme evaluation suggest that children on the programme made an average of two months’ extra progress in maths, compared to those in the control group.

However, the researchers noted that 36 per cent of children that took part in the trial were not included in the final analysis, largely because they had left participating nurseries or did not attend nursery on the day the intervention ended.

As a result, researchers said the findings should be treated with caution, but said there was some evidence that pupils involved in the programme made greater progress in maths, with children making the equivalent of two extra month’ progress on average.

Initial results also suggest the overall quality of maths provision in nurseries was improved through the Maths Champion programme. 

The impact of the programme did not appear to be affected by children's eligibility for the Early Years Pupil Premium.

Secondary analysis carried out through the ECERS assessment suggested that the maths score for settings in the intervention group was statistically higher than those in the control group.  

Most nurseries were positive about the programme and its impact on settings and children, but some also raised the burden on nursery staff time as a potential issue.


Maths Champions cost each nursery around £216 a year, around £9 per pupil per year when averaged over three years. The main financial costs are associated with training and on-going support. On average, Maths Champions spent over three hours per week on the programme, with half of them doing this work in their own time. The workload was lower for the other early years practitioners.

NDNA chief executive Purnima Tanuku said, ‘We welcome this piece of research into our Maths Champions programme which shows how maths learning can be improved.

‘Two months’ progress in a young child’s life provides them with a boost in future education, so with these initial evaluation results suggesting an improvement in maths learning from participating in the Maths Champion programme, we are very excited about the potential for further improvement over a longer period. This is the time when the foundations for lifelong learning are laid, so is the ideal time for an intervention of this type.

‘This progress made by the children should be seen as part of a wider, holistic approach to learning which supports children to grow and develop their skills. We’re pleased that ECERS assessment formed part of this project.

‘Nurseries that have taken part in the programme are positive about the outcomes which have not only helped to improve children’s potential but also helped grow staff confidence in their own maths abilities.’

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