Enhancing mathematics understanding for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds via spatial reasoning

Start date

01 October 2023

End date

30 September 2027


In England, 8.1 million adults only achieve primary school level maths (Skills for Life, 2011, p. 69). Furthermore, low numeracy skills result in poorer outcomes in adulthood compared to those without low numeracy skills, including lower engagement in their communities and lower potential for employment. 

Additionally, efforts to increase these skills later in life are of limited success (Windisch, 2015). Optimising mathematics education in early life is therefore vital to improve life outcomes. However, national attainment in mathematics for children aged 11 (KS2 SATS) is still considerably below pre-Covid levels (DfE, 2023) and the attainment gap in mathematics between children from low socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds and their peers has increased compared to 2019 levels (National Audit Office, 2023). In addition, research suggests that children from low SES backgrounds are less likely to be well supported at home in the development of their mathematics skills (DeFlorio & Beliakoff 2015). Spatial cognition – the ability to understand the properties of objects (location, size, and shape) as well as the relationship between objects – improve children’s mathematics understanding (Hawes et al., 2022), are malleable (Uttal et al., 2013), and offer a fun and enjoyable way for children to engage in mathematics education (McDougal et al., 2023). There is limited research dedicated to understanding the relationship between spatial ability and mathematics understanding in children from low SES backgrounds.

This project seeks to understand the dynamic of spatial ability and mathematics performance and how this is related to socioeconomic status. This information will be used to develop an effective set of interventions that can be deployed in education settings and within the home environment. The PhD has three main studies: (1) an associational study examining the relationship between spatial reasoning skills age 2, 4 and 9 and mathematics performance aged 10 and how this relationship is moderated by SES. (2) an intervention study co-produced by practitioners and researchers to address low levels of mathematics understanding, aimed at children from low SES backgrounds, using spatial reasoning activities. (3) a qualitative study working with families of children from low SES backgrounds to understand the barriers to supporting children’s spatial ability and mathematics performance outside of school.


Bower, C., Zimmermann, L., Verdine, B., Toub, T. S., Islam, S., Foster, L., Evans, N., Odean, R., Cibischino, A., Pritulsky, C., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2020). Piecing together the role of a spatial assembly intervention in preschoolers’ spatial and mathematics learning: Influences of gesture, spatial language, and socioeconomic status. Developmental Psychology 

DeFlorio, L. & Beliakoff, A. (2015) Socioeconomic Status and Preschoolers' Mathematical Knowledge: The Contribution of Home Activities and Parent Beliefs, Early Education and Development, 26:3, 319-341.

Department for Business Innovation and Skills (2012). The 2011 Skills for life survey: A survey of literacy, numeracy, and ICT levels in England. 2011 Skills for Life Survey: A Survey of Literacy, Numeracy and ICT Levels in England (publishing.service.gov.uk)

Department for Education (11 July 2023). Attainment in Maths and Writing SATs increases compared to 2022. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/attainment-in-maths-and-writing-sats-increases-compared-to-2022

Hawes, Z. C. K., Gilligan-Lee, K. A., & Mix, K. S. (2022). Effects of spatial training on mathematics performance: A meta-analysis. Developmental Psychology, 58(1), 112–1375.

McDougal, E., Silverstein, P., Treleaven, O., Jerrom, L., Gilligan‐Lee, K. A., Gilmore, C., & Farran, E. K. (2023). Associations and indirect effects between LEGO® construction and mathematics performance. Child development, 94(5), 1381-1397.

National Audit Office (1 February 2023). Education recovery in schools in England. Education recovery in schools in England (nao.org.uk).

Uttal, D. H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., Alden, A. R., Warren, C., & Newcombe, N. S. (2013). The malleability of spatial skills: A meta-analysis of training studies. Psychological Bulletin, 139(2), 352–402.

Windisch, H. (2015), "Adults with low literacy and numeracy skills: A literature review on policy intervention", OECD Education Working Papers, No. 123, OECD Publishing, Paris.



Emily Farran profile image

Professor Emily Farran

Professor in Developmental Psychology, University of Surrey

Debbie Gooch profile image

Dr Debbie Gooch

Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, University of Surrey

Sarah McCarthy

Postgraduate researcher, University of Surrey

Angelica Ronald profile image

Professor Angelica Ronald

Professor of Psychology and Genetics, University of Surrey

Professor Michael Thomas

Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Birkbeck University of London

Research groups and centres

Our research is supported by research groups and centres of excellence.


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