Low attainment in mathematics: an investigation of Year 9 students

Low attainment is acknowledged to be one of the most serious problems in mathematics education. Evidence suggests that in England this problem is getting worse rather than better. However, relatively little recent research has focused on low attainment in secondary mathematics.

This project will develop a new test targeted at low attaining secondary students' knowledge of number, multiplicative reasoning and algebra. It will use quantitative and qualitative methods to address the following questions:

  • What mathematics do low attaining secondary students understand, and what are their particular strengths and weaknesses in number, multiplicative reasoning and algebra?
  • Can low attainment be characterised simply as cognitive delay? If not, to what extent and in what ways do low attaining students understand mathematics in qualitatively different ways to high attaining students?
  • To what extent do low attaining students' prior understandings of mathematics, and of particular mathematical topics, help to explain the existence of the attainment gap? What is the relative contribution of these mathematical understandings in comparison to socio-economic status and other demographic factors?
  • What is currently known about the effectiveness of teaching strategies and approaches that address low attainment in secondary mathematics?
  • To what extent is mathematics currently taught in appropriate ways for low attainers?

The project aims to provide evidence to inform policy and practice directed at narrowing the achievement gap in mathematics, improving the teaching of secondary low attainers, and informing the design of appropriate interventions.

Project details



Professor Jeremy Hodgen, Department of Curriculum, Pedagogy & Assessment, University College London

Professor Margaret Brown, Department of Education and Professional Studies, King's
College London

Professor Robert Coe, Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, Durham University

Grant amount and duration:


September 2015 - April 2019