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Developing the use of the subject knowledge SET with practitioners in the EYFS

Created on 19 April 2011 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 04 October 2013 by ncetm_administrator


Developing the use of the subject knowledge SET with practitioners in the EYFS

The need for excellent subject knowledge is no less important in the Early Years Foundation Stage than in any other phase. In fact some would argue that it is more important in this phase when early mathematical concepts should be formed. In 2010, four schools agreed to help us to understand how the NCETM Self Evaluation Tools for EYFS might be used to help practitioners develop their subject knowledge.

Early Years Professionals at all levels are skilled practitioners. However, most would agree that they do not generally have a deep understanding of mathematics, and often have particular worries  - even fears - about this element of the curriculum.

Research tells us that, whilst a cross-curricular approach to the EYFS curriculum is clearly very valuable, the lack of a subject focus can lead to a poorer mathematical learning experience. This is a view is supported not only by researchers in the field, Aubrey (1997), Hopkins, Gifford, Pepperell (2000) but also by Early Years professionals themselves (NCETM Early Years Working Group Meeting  December 2009).

"If teaching involves helping others to learn then understanding the mathematics subject content to be taught is a fundamental requirement of teaching"
Aubrey (1997)

These issues together can mean that opportunities to develop conceptual understanding are missed. Many practitioners struggle with designing effective  mathematical problem solving tasks and activities which fully develop both cognitive and meta-cognitive skills. This is reflected in the popularity of Early Years Planning.

It is clearly vital that young children have the opportunity to develop the fundamental skills and concepts which will underpin and support their future mathematical development, and therefore appropriate professional development for practitioners in this area is equally vital.

Yet, as research by Munn (1997) and others indicates, there are at least two significant issues from the viewpoint of practitioners about mathematics continuing professional development (CPD). Firstly, It has been believed by many to be difficult to find high quality mathematics provision. Lack of time has also been cited as an issue in settings with part-time staff or with more than one cohort of children per day.


To try to help bridge the gaps in mathematical understanding discussed above, and to deal with the issues regarding effective CPD, the NCETM developed the National Priority Project. The hypothesis which underpinned this project proposed that a deep understanding of mathematics would help practitioners plan a more effective curriculum for their pupils.

In order to enquire more deeply into this issue and to identify whether the NCETM subject knowledge self evaluation tool, (SET) might support development of maths subject knowledge, a Pathfinder project was developed in collaboration with a local authority early years team (Hampshire.) This was then developed into. a small research project was undertaken by two further local authority early years education teams (Devon and Norfolk). It was important that the perceived barriers to effective CPD, that is, negative attitudes towards mathematics and time constraints, particularly in early years settings where the opportunity for professional development is often limited, were taken into account in the design and application of an effective professional development programme. Any approach had to be handled with sensitivity in order to engage those who would ultimately benefit from the support offered.

The Project

In May 2010, Hampshire Local Authority (LA) was selected to take part in the project. One reason for their selection was that the EYFS Adviser was a mathematics specialist, a rarity in the EYFS. A cluster comprising maintained Early Years (EY) settings, Reception classes (YR) and a Sure Start Centre were chosen, representing a range of socio-economic groups.

In discussion with the practitioners involved it was decided that an approach starting from the observation of learning might provide the most effective way to engage people. The LA had recently introduced a transition project for EY to YR which focused on a CD of counting rhymes and songs intended for use in the EY settings, with parents and also in the new YR class. The observations would focus on the children’s engagement in learning generated by the activities linked to the rhymes and songs. Observations were recorded and then discussed with the EY adviser. From this analysis of the learning process, areas for each practitioner’s further development were identified, together with the sections of the SET relevant to support the practitioner’s understanding about number concepts and skills. The adviser, who by this time had assumed the role of mediator or expert, was able to lead practitioners through the progression in mathematical development which would underpin their knowledge and support their ability to guide their pupils’ learning more effectively. In this way, practitioners could understand how to further extend their pupils’ learning through improved subject knowledge and pedagogy with confidence.

Although the project ran for only a brief time the initial pathfinder proved to be very successful, with many practitioners acknowledging the value of engaging in this form of CPD. The SET was acknowledged to be a tool which could usefully guide their mathematical development.  The LA also acknowledged the benefits and decided to roll out this approach in other areas. For various reasons, this proved to be difficult and in the end three local authorities took part. At an initial meeting in October 2010 of those involved agreed the principles and aims of the project were agreed, based on the Hampshire pathfinder project.

The established principles and aims were:

  1. The CPD project should be driven by perceived/identified learning needs of pupils and a desire by the practitioner to improve their practice through improved mathematical knowledge and further develop effective learning experiences for pupils. An action research approach was deemed to be the most likely to achieve this goal.
  2. The fundamental early number concepts such as one to one correspondence, conservation and cardinality would provide the initial focus.
  3. The subject knowledge SET  would be mediated by an ‘expert’ who would provide support and guidance
  4. The use of the subject knowledge SET should be linked to curriculum planning so that the impact of CPD can be generated by and feed into planning. The impact of the adult learning and study would be observed in improved pupil engagement and progress in learning.

The underlying principle of this project was to use a collaborative action research approach which the participants would feel to be non-judgemental and non-threatening, the initial ‘finding out’ phase, that is,  the observation of children’s learning and perceived gaps, weaknesses or barriers was recorded by small unobtrusive video cameras. These captured the ‘ad hoc’ interactions in the setting and were an important artefact to support reflection about current provision and what area of mathematics might be further developed through the use of the SET.


All three project leaders reported success with the CPD programme and particularly with the power of the SET to focus and engage practitioners in their own mathematics. It enabled all involved in the projects to reflect on their practice and to identify areas for improvement. Its motivational and positive influence was clear.

For example one project lead noted that hearing a practitioner comment 'that ‘There are so many things that could be better’ showed the depth of her reflection and her commitment to doing something about it.'

Once the CPD programme had been introduced, many began to feel more secure in admitting their weaknesses and identify areas for improvement, for example, another practitioner observed that, 'through completion of the SET the teacher felt reassured about her own knowledge and understanding.'

Practitioners reported that working through the SET and having the opportunity to discuss it made them reflect more generally on the children’s mathematical learning. One practitioner said that she felt refreshed and thought it would be useful to do something similar on a regular basis to maintain her raised awareness. As a way of doing this, she had arranged to have the Early Years Magazine sent to her iphone, which she then read on the bus on the way to school

All three projects commented on the fact that practitioners saw this as the beginning. Hopefully that belief will persevere and help to ensure that their children will develop the secure mathematical foundations that they need to become confident mathematicians in the future.
  • The project has clearly demonstrated that the Self Evaluation Tool can help in both motivating and supporting practitioners in their learning. It is most effective when practitioners are able to call on a subject expert to support and guide the professional development. The development of adult mathematical knowledge will take time; there is no quick fix.
  • EYFS professionals at all levels can be difficult to engage in the further development of their own mathematics subject knowledge, for a number of reasons. In particular, they do not usually see it as being essential component of their professional toolkit. For example, many would not recognise that the concept of one to one correspondence underpins future algebraic understanding and that the secure understanding of this concept is essential to mathematical development.
  • EYFS practitioners are likely to be motivated by a few key messages:
    • Mathematics expertise will help EYFS practitioners to provide more effective learning experiences and be able to provide effective adult intervention to develop both cognitive and meta-cognitive skills.
    • Knowing when to ask a child to justify or convince can begin to stimulate an understanding of the concept of mathematical proof.
    • Reasoning and reflecting on experience can form generalisations and generate an understanding of the role of generalising in mathematics.
  • The Early Years Phase is the beginning of the mathematical learning journey. Children’s learning should be carefully scaffolded, and in order to do that practitioners should be encouraged to see the ‘big picture of mathematics’ and the fundamental role that the early years plays in developing the ‘big ideas’.


Aubrey, C. (1997). Mathematics Teaching in the Early Years, Falmer Press

Hopkins, C., Gifford, S., Pepperell, S., (2000). Mathematics in the Primary School: A Sense of Progression, David Fulton Publishers Ltd

Munn, P. (1997) Children’s beliefs about counting. In I. Thompson (ed.) Teaching and learning early number. Buckingham: Open University Press



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