Supporting Challenging Boys in Primary Maths

Before joining Third Space Learning, I was a teacher in a school with a considerable number of boys from disadvantaged backgrounds. In retrospect, I realise much of my time was spent trying to help these boys on their academic journey to success in Maths. As a relatively new teacher, I tried lots of different methods, some more successful than others. I hope from my experience of what worked and what didn’t you’ll also be able to reflect on how best to support any challenging learners in your class and perhaps get a few ideas along the way.

1) The problem

‘It is clear that the association between poverty and underachievement remains strong and white British boys from low-income backgrounds continue to make less progress than most other groups’. (Ofsted, 2008)

In the UK it is clear that students eligible for free school meals (FSM), and in particular boys, are still underachieving in their academic life. In fact, only one quarter of FSM students achieve five good GCSEs or equivalent (Hirsch, 2007), with white-working class boys amongst the lowest academic performers in the UK (Sharples, 2011).

During my time spent teaching at a school in the South East of England it became more and more noticeable that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were not reaching the same levels of attainment and engagement as others. I decided to try out some different strategies to try and close the gap.

2) What the literature says

One of the points Hirsch makes (2007) is that less advantaged children are more likely to feel a lack of control and a lack of confidence with their learning. I found this to particularly be the case for my lower ability pupils; often they had not had consistent teachers and many of them frequently told me that they ‘couldn’t do maths’.

Develop self-belief

I believe that these pupils cannot access the curriculum for their year group until they start to develop an internal belief in themselves. Without this, they will often not attempt the work set even when it is appropriate for their ability. With these pupils, I made a particular effort to build individual relationships with them and to use praise to build their confidence; after two terms of focusing on these students, one pupil wrote a card to me:

‘Dear Miss, You are the first teacher ever to believe in me. Thank you.’

Involve student in their futures

Hirsch also suggested that pupils work more effectively if they are involved in their futures. One of my interventions for a group of FSM boys was a termly target-setting booklet where they set themselves targets to fulfil and then evaluated whether they met these targets or not. After two terms I did however decide that the pupils were not acting upon these targets sufficiently so I decided that in the future a better strategy would be to set aside target time each week where the pupils could discuss their progress and we could work together to identify next steps in order to reach their longer term goals.

3) Three strategies from my own experience

Strategy 1: Competition. Competition. Competition.

Everyone knows that boys love a bit of competition. In my classroom I worked with a colleague to introduce weekly inter-class competitions to engage our FSM boys. These competitions were based on the pupils’ current work, the whole class contributed to the final scores which were displayed on classroom walls and the winning class was awarded at the end of each term.

This activity did engage even some of the toughest boys and we had other students from other classes asking to join in these competitions so this may be a good activity to adapt for your own classroom.

Strategy 2: Use student feedback

Like many teaching professionals, I have collected data directly from students over the past few years due to studying for additional academic qualifications (namely for me, a masters qualification). I have rarely however seen a colleague ask for student feedback outside studying for these qualifications, perhaps because of lack of time.

I have found that gathering feedback from your pupils once in a while can also be extremely useful. Although teachers are often wary of receiving negative feedback I found that there were many insightful comments which helped me to identify particular lessons and topics that the pupils were enjoying. I tried out a a few different ways of doing this and some worked much better than others. For instance I found that a “blob tree” was particularly useful for one group of pupils.

One problem (that can be avoided) however is that when data is collected but not acted upon, students’ trust in teachers may well reduce if their opinions are not taken into account.

Strategy 3: Use tutor time for intervention

School timetables are stretched and finding times for formal interventions can be a real a challenge.I found that one way to overcome this is to try and find small moments throughout the day to have some one-to-one time with my FSM pupils.

In secondary this can be done during tutor time which is often unstructured and underutilised, even in the best of schools. In primary, teachers can make use of time during silent reading sessions or morning and afternoon registration.

Third Space Learning Guide to Effective 1-to-1 Interventions

How to plan, manage and teach 1-to-1 and small group KS2 Maths interventions to make best use of the resources you have

The most effective intervention I found was targeted maths tutor sessions during tutor time for FSM boys. One of the reasons I believe this intervention worked so well is that senior leaders supported this intervention, even though distributed leadership was being exercised on my behalf. Furthermore, as this intervention did not take part after school, some boys who would not normally attend additional Maths sessions did so and at the end of the first trial of these sessions, some students even asked for these sessions to be longer and more frequent.

These are my ideas, but I’m still learning. What have you found worked in your classroom and school for more challenging learners?

Read more on supporting pupils in your class (with techniques from our own Maths specialist practice) here: 20 Maths Strategies KS2 that Guarantee Progress for All Pupils.


Hirsch, D. (2007) ‘Experiences of Poverty and Educational Disadvantage’. Joseph Rowntree Foundation: York.

Kent, P. (2006) ‘Finding the Missing Jigsaw Pieces: A New Model for Analysing School Culture’. Management in Education 20(3). pp25-29.

Ofsted. (2008) White Boys from Low-Income Backgrounds: Good Practice in Schools

Sophie Waterman-Smith
Sophie Waterman-Smith
Third Space Learning
Sophie grew up in Brighton and taught Maths in a secondary school. In between working with our schools, she writes about the teachmeets she attends on our blog.
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Third Space Learning Guide to Effective 1-to-1 Interventions

How to plan, manage and teach 1-to-1 and small group KS2 Maths interventions to make best use of the resources you have

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Downloadable resource

Third Space Learning Guide to Effective 1-to-1 Interventions

How to plan, manage and teach 1-to-1 and small group KS2 Maths interventions to make best use of the resources you have

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