Discourses of Ability and Primary School Mathematics
: Production, Reproduction and Transformation

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis investigates how discourses of mathematical-ability are produced and reproduced by pupils and teachers in the primary classroom and the impacts of these on teaching and learning. Building on a literature base suggesting the often negative and self-fulfilling outcomes of ability labelling and grouping, the thesis embeds this literature strongly in primary mathematics, exploring why these practices not only continue, but form the basis of much Government and school organisational policy. -- Utilising a critical realist meta-theory, the thesis draws pragmatically from multiple traditions. Data were collected from approximately 300 pupils and 14 teachers in two primary schools. Individual and group-interviews and classroom observations explored pupils’ and teachers’ productions of their own and others’ mathematical-ability, with pupil questionnaires and attainment tests used to examine the extent to which these impact on pupil attainment and learning in mathematics. -- The thesis finds that discourses of ability are pervasive, embedded in all aspects of teaching and learning in primary mathematics, and resistant to change. Pupils and teachers are fairly consistent in their understanding of mathematical-ability; this is thought of as a stable, innate quality connected to intelligence and genetics or else conceptualised in terms of, and muddled with, assessment outcomes. Assessment, labelling and inequitable ability practices create pupils from an early age as mathematically able or not, whilst setting places the focus on the mathematics, effectively ignoring the whole-child, raising many of the concerns about setting in secondary mathematics in a primary context. Many teachers recognise the inequity in the practices they engage in, yet reproduce the inequitable practices they experienced.
Date of AwardMay 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJeremy Hodgen (Supervisor), Meg Maguire (Supervisor) & Mike Askew (Supervisor)

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