Institute of Education


Low attainment in mathematics: an investigation of Year 9 students in England

A research project that explores low attainment in mathematics in lower secondary.

The overall aim of the study was to understand the nature of low attainment in mathematics in lower secondary by gathering evidence on what mathematics pupils know, investigating how the attainment gap develops over time, and reviewing existing evidence on what teaching strategies and approaches are most likely to improve the problem. 

The project ran from 2015 - 2020 and was funded by the Nuffield Foundation.


Evidence from the Investigating Confidence and Competence in Algebra and Multiplicative Structures (ICCAMS) study indicate that in England the proportion of the very lowest attaining students at the end of Key Stage 3 (KS3) has roughly doubled since the 1970s. This group now constitutes about 15% of the Year 9 cohort.

These students have difficulty answering even basic questions about core ideas from the primary curriculum. In addition, we found that a significant proportion of students have difficulty with the basic concepts in secondary mathematics: 41% in algebra and 65% in ratio.

We believe that this low attainment in mathematics is one of the most serious and urgent problems currently facing our educational system.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the research evidence about mathematical low attainment is limited and fragmented.There are relatively few studies in mathematics education that investigate what low attaining secondary students understand in mathematics or what approaches are effective at addressing these students’ difficulties.

Yet, such evidence is vital to informing interventions and policies that seek to address low attainment in mathematics and thus increase later attainment at GCSE. 


We developed of a new test of low attainers’ mathematics knowledge which was administered to middle and high attainers in Year 5 (1050 pupils) and low attaining Year 9 pupils (2841 pupils).

This was matched to demographic and prior attainment data in the Department for Education (DfE) National Pupil Database. Analysis focused on a subsample of these pupils with similar overall mathematics attainment. 

We conducted further analysis of the sample (10,913 pupils) from Year 7, 8 and 9 who took part in the ICCAMS national survey in 2008 and 2009. The survey tested pupils’ conceptual understanding of algebra, decimals, fractions and ratio with matched demographic and attainment data from the National Pupil Database (including these pupils’ later performance at GCSE). 

We carried out a systematic review of the relevant literature on approaches to teaching low attaining secondary pupils. We interviewed 195 pupils and 12 teachers to investigate how mathematics was taught to low attaining students.

Advisory group
  • Dr Nicola Bretscher (UCL Institute of Education)
  • Dr Ann Dowker (University of Oxford)
  • Dr Peter Gates (University of Nottingham)
  • Professor Matthew Inglis (Loughborough University)
  • Jane Jones (Ofsted)
  • Professor Anne Watson (University of Oxford)
  • John Westwell (National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics)
  • Anne White (Improve Maths)
Project team

The Low Attainment in Mathematics study was conducted by a team of researchers from UCL Institute of Education, Loughborough University, University of Nottingham and Durham University:

  • Professor Jeremy Hodgen (UCL Institute of Education)
  • Dr Colin Foster (Loughborough University)
  • Professor Robert Coe (Evidence-Based Education / Education Endowment Foundation)
  • Professor Margaret Brown (King’s College London)
  • Professor Steve Higgins (Durham University)
  • Dr Dietmar Kuchemann (King’s College London)