University of York: New research centre to transform understanding of children’s mathematics learning

The CEML will transform children’s mathematics learning during their early years and will design effective educational activities to improve skills and knowledge.

The centre is one of six in the UK to receive support from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to tackle urgent social and economic issues.

The centre will be led by Professor Camilla Gilmore at Loughborough University, in partnership with the Universities of York, Bristol, Ulster, Edinburgh, Oxford, and University College London.

New methods

Dr Silke Goebel, from the Department of Psychology, who is one of the challenge leads at the centre, said: “I am very excited about this once-in-a-lifetime chance to contribute to understanding and improving mathematics learning.

“The Centre for Early Mathematics Learning will transform research in early mathematics learning by linking studies of the science of mathematics learning with the design of educational activities and by bringing new methods to the field of mathematical cognition.”


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. 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 are unable to acquire the maths skills they need, with one in five leaving primary school without grasping basic mathematical foundations. For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, 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.

Effective interventions

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. They will work alongside teachers and early years practitioners to develop and evaluate resources based on their findings that will have a positive impact in education settings.

Dr Silke Goebel will lead one of the five research challenges. She said of her role: “There is a particular need for research-based interventions that focus on children’s early mathematical learning. By the time children start formal schooling there are already substantial individual differences in mathematics achievement.

“The aim of the research challenge I will be leading is to identify causal mechanisms of mathematics learning and how these interact with domain-general cognitive and non-cognitive factors, and to design effective interventions based on insights from these studies.”

Real-world impact

Professor Tim Andrews, Head of Department at the Department of Psychology said: “I am both delighted and excited that York will be involved in the new Centre for Early Mathematics Learning. Dr Goebel’s expertise and leadership in numerical cognition will be central to addressing the factors that are important for children when they are learning mathematics, but will also be critical to developing new methods for teaching mathematics. The findings of this research will be important in developing policy that will allow all children, regardless of background, a chance to learn this key life skill.”

The centre’s lead Professor Camilla Gilmore from 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.”