Ulster University and partners to receive £8.23m to transform understanding of children’s mathematics learning

30 November 2021

Ulster University and partners to receive £8.23m to transform understanding of children’s mathematics learning
The Centre for Early Mathematics Learning is set to transform understanding of children’s mathematics learning during the early years

Ulster University’s School of Psychology is part of an inter-university research team which will receive over £8.23m in funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, to establish a new Centre for Early Mathematics Learning (CEML).

Professor Victoria Simms from the University’s Coleraine campus will form a key part of the research group which is set to lead the way in transforming understanding of children’s mathematics learning during the early years, designing effective educational activities and equipping educators with the knowledge, tools, and confidence to help children succeed.

The Centre will run for five years launching in January 2022 and see Ulster University work in partnership with Loughborough University, University of Bristol, University of Edinburgh, University of Oxford, University of York and University College London to take an interdisciplinary approach and learn from best practices internationally.

Announced today, Tuesday 30th November, the centre is one of six in the UK to receive support from the ESRC to tackle urgent social and economic issues, from evolving policing, to social care and intergenerational inequality in a £49m research funding boost for urgent challenges.

These awards are being made following a highly competitive process run by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which was open to new research ideas from all areas of social science.

Improving the quality of early mathematics education has been recognised as a priority in the UK and around the world. Research shows that mathematics skills are important both for individual wellbeing and for a successful economy. For individuals, higher levels of maths skills are associated with improved employment prospects, positive health outcomes and a better quality of life. And as a result, it is estimated that the cost to the UK economy of low maths skills is up to £25 billion per year*.

Despite this many children don’t gain the maths skills they need, with one in five leaving primary school without grasping basic mathematical foundations. For children from a disadvantaged background the outcomes are even more concerning. They start school with lower levels of numeracy skills than their peers and this gap only widens throughout their primary education.

The COVID pandemic has only made the problem worse. Early evidence of the impact of school closures indicates that the disadvantage gap in maths skills has widened throughout, that young children have been impacted the most, and maths is the subject most affected.

To address these issues the CEML will carry out in-depth research, looking at the ways in which cognitive, emotional, social, and environmental factors influence the development of children’s maths skills. The team will use multiple research approaches to provide, for the first time, a detailed perspective on mathematical learning, and will work alongside teachers and early years practitioners to develop and evaluate resources based on their findings that will have positive impact in education settings.

Professor Victoria Simms, Research Director, Psychology, Ulster University said:

“COVID-19 has impacted on children’s learning, international research tells us this is particularly true for the subject of mathematics. The Centre for Early Mathematics Learning provides an exciting and unique opportunity for researchers to work with children, parents, childcare workers and teachers to investigate the development of mathematics knowledge and skills in the early years. Our research will help us understand how young children learn really complex ideas and inform us of best practices and resources to support them.”

Speaking about the centre Professor Gilmore, Loughborough University said:

“It is vital that we take action now to reverse the decline in children’s maths skills, and ensure that all children, regardless of their background, have the knowledge they need to succeed and flourish in society. This new Centre will bring together international leaders in this field, who are experts in recruiting diverse participant pools to ensure findings are representative of wider society. Our work will have a real-world impact, advancing our understanding of children’s development and providing much needed support for children, families and educators. We are delighted that the ESRC share in our vision and are funding this important centre.”

ESRC research centres are major strategic investments which take forward an ambitious research agenda to deliver real societal and economic impact. Also, to provide robust research evidence to support government decision making.

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser said:

“Social science research is central to our efforts to build back better from the pandemic. The latest ESRC research centres will focus on some of the key societal issues to be addressed, such as social care, policing, inequalities between generations and the impact of digital technologies, and will help maintain the UK’s position at the forefront of social science research.”

Professor Alison Park, interim executive chair of ESRC said:

We are delighted to announce the funding for these six centres, which demonstrate the excellence, breadth and relevance of social science research. They will all bring a fresh social science perspective on many issues of major public and policy interest and will provide robust research evidence that can be used by policy makers and practitioners. Not only are research centres major strategic investments which have significant economic and societal impact, but they also add value by increasing research infrastructure, building capacity, encouraging interdisciplinary working and enabling research collaboration in the UK and internationally to bring about change.”

*Report by National Numeracy / KPMG published earlier this year: https://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-04/Counting%20on%20the%20Recovery%20(compressed)%20FINAL.pdf


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