Can a third of 5 year-olds not count to ten?

Published: 4th Jul 2013

After reading the Daily Mail today you'd be forgiven for thinking that a third of five year olds can't count to ten.

Here's the headline in question:

However much later in the article the Daily Mail highlights another statistic - "Some eight per cent of boys cannot count up to ten, compared with five per cent of girls" - which seems to contradict their headline.

What's going on?

By the age of five, children should be able to count to ten and describe shapes and sizes. This is a requirement set out by the Department for Education's Early Years Foundation Stage, a framework that sets learning and development prerequisites for children entering primary education.

The Daily Mail's headline seemingly attributes this alarming statistic on children's counting abilities to Ofsted and their chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw.

However this claim is not in Ofsted's latest report - 'Getting It Right First Time' - which was published yesterday. Ofsted's latest publication is a survey of early education providers, schools and nurseries. Its purpose is to look at good practice in a selection of providers that were outstanding in two consecutive inspections, as Ofsted's spokesperson told us.

So what has this got to do with children's maths skills?

According to the Daily Mail, "more than a third [of children] continue to struggle to do simple tasks such as count to ten, write simple words or take turns speaking in class amid a shortage of 'high quality' provision."

This chimes with a claim made in Ofsted's report, which expresses concerns over the number of children who in 2012 were "not working securely in communication, language and literacy, as shown by the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile scores." However, numerical skills aren't mentioned as part of this.

What does "working securely" mean?

Here the report is citing DfE statistics. Data from a DfE statistical release on Early Years development does show that 36 per cent of children start formal learning without a 'good level of development'.

But we can be more precise.

The annual release contains information at both national and local authority level on achievement outcomes at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage, which measures achievements of children aged five against 13 assessment scales. These 13 assessment scales - which have now been reviewed but were used up until September 2012 - are grouped into six areas of learning, among them counting, calculating, and recognising shapes and space.

'Working securely' in maths

Based on the skills the child is exhibiting, they are placed within one of the following categories:

  • A score of 0 indicates where it has not been possible to record an assessment.
  • A score of 1-3 indicates working towards the early learning goals.
  • A score of 4-8 indicates working within the early learning goals.
  • A score of 9 indicates working beyond the early learning goals.

As an example, according to this assessment sheet, a child who can "count reliably up to ten everyday objects" scores a 6. To get the Mail's figures of 5% of girls and 8% of boys failing to meet this standard, we need to look at this table from the stats release:

PSRN: NLC refers to problem Solving, reasoning and numeracy. Achieving a level six means to be able to reliably count up to ten everyday objects. Getting a 7 means a child can order numbers up to ten.

95% of girls and 92% of boys can count up to ten every day objects, while 88% of girls and 84% of boys can actually order numbers up to ten. 

So on this basis the evidence flatly contradicts the claim that a third of children can't count to ten. Taking boys and girls overall, 7% of five year-olds can't count up to ten objects and 14% can't order numbers up to ten. These aren't inconsiderable proportions but are nowhere near the scale of one third.

This scoring system can be confusing. Just a few months ago we factchecked the claim that a third of children can hardly communicate when they start school. As it turned out, a third of children we not "working securely" in communication, language and literacy. As we pointed out then, it was perhaps unfair of the Daily Mail to conclude in that occasion that a third of children could "hardly communicate".

Much in the same way, we can't claim that a third of children can't count to ten.

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Flickr image courtesy of Hugo Cardoso

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