'For the first time it has become possible to reach some consensus on the nature of dyscalculia'

We hear from Rachel Simpson, chair of a working group on dyscalculia which has published new guidance with input from psychologists.

In the summer of 2018, following a SpLD Assessment Standards Committee (SASC) consultation meeting with academics and practitioners, the SASC and the SpLD Test Evaluation Committee (STEC) set up a Working Group to develop new assessment guidance on dyscalculia. We spoke to the Chair of the group, Rachel Simpson.

What needs to change in the field of assessment for dyscalculia?

For years there has been discussion (and confusion) about how to define dyscalculia and how to differentiate it from maths difficulties occurring within other specific learning difficulties (SpLDs). Many mathematics specialists feel strongly that mathematics and dyscalculia have been neglected compared to literacy and dyslexia, with maths difficulties sometimes appearing to be ignored or inadequately explored as an add-on within a literacy assessment. However, in recent years there has been an explosion of interest and research into mathematics difficulties, and for the first time it has become possible to reach some consensus on the nature of dyscalculia. 

The two psychologists on the group were Lynda Hine and David Grant. What did they bring to the table?

The members of the working group were (in alphabetical order): Dr David Grant, Ed Psych; Dr Lynda Hine, Ed Psych; Pete Jarrett, Specialist Teacher Assessor (STA); Dr Kathleen Kelly, STA; Anne McLoughlin, STA; and myself, Rachel Simpson, STA. David Grant is widely read with excellent knowledge of the latest developments in maths research and has written articles on assessment of mathematics. His experience enabled him to focus discussions about the nature of dyscalculia and other mathematics difficulties around the research evidence and in the context of a diagnostic assessment. Dr Lynda Hine leads a programme of teaching and research at University of Chester into both dyslexia and dyscalculia. She offered excellent insights into areas where guidance on dyscalculia and maths difficulties needed to be clearer to inform practice and raise standards. In this she was joined by Dr Kathleen Kelly, and Ann McLoughlin, who design and teach Level 7, postgraduate diagnostic assessment training courses at Manchester Metropolitan University and Edge Hill University respectively. Both are passionate advocates for raising standards in assessment of mathematics difficulties. Pete Jarrett, who chairs the British Dyslexia Association’s working group on dyscalculia, brought with him all the shared expertise and experience of that group. My own role, as chair of the SASC/STEC dyscalculia working group, was to listen, bring the group towards consensus and then translate that consensus into written guidance.

As a specialist teacher-assessor, what have you looked for from psychologists on the group?

The SASC and STEC committees consist of both psychologists and specialist teacher-assessors (STAs) and it is very important that both groups are well represented. An example of what can happen when representation is not complete concerns debates over what training, experience and knowledge is required to assess for dyscalculia. Although SASC/STEC’s working group on dyscalculia initially contained four psychologists, two were unable to attend the meetings, and as a result occupational and clinical psychologists were not represented. When the draft guidance was presented at SASC’s annual conference in June 2019 it was generally well received, but the advice on what qualifications and experience are needed to assess for mathematics difficulties proved controversial – some assessors felt that too much emphasis was being given to the need to have experience of teaching mathematics to inform the interpretation of assessment outcomes.

The wording of the advice was already a compromise between maths specialists who wished to redress decades of assessment of mathematics by literacy specialists, and others who emphasised the need for mathematics to be assessed within the context of a wider, holistic assessment. The debates that followed the June conference highlighted the need to amend the advice further to ensure that some STAs and some psychologists who have a wealth of valuable, relevant expertise and experience, would not be excluded. The wording of the advice was subsequently adjusted to this purpose.

How will you seek to ensure that the guidance is put into practice?

The new guidance on Dyscalculia has been published on SASC’s website, www.sasc.org.uk (from the Downloads tab). This guidance is being built into SASC’s New Report Format for pre and post-16 age groups, and SASC’s criteria for training standards and APC standards. In addition STEC is drawing up a list of suitable tests to explore mathematics difficulties as set out in this new guidance and hopes to publish this early in 2020 on the www.sasc.org.uk website.


SASC (2019) SASC Guidance on assessment of Dyscalculia and Maths Difficulties within other Specific Learning Difficulties. Available at www.sasc.org.uk. from the Downloads tab.

SASC (2019) SASC - Format for a Post-16 Years Diagnostic Assessment Report for Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs) Available at www.sasc.org.uk from the Downloads tab.

SASC (2019) SASC - Format for a Post-16 Years Diagnostic Assessment Report for Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs). Available at www.sasc.org.uk from the Downloads tab.

SASC (2019) SASC - Formats for Pre and Post-16 Years Diagnostic Assessment Reports for Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs) Additional Guidance And Explanatory Detail. Available at www.sasc.org.uk  from the Downloads tab.

SASC (no date) APC Course Approval Guidance Available at www.sasc.org.uk from APC Course Approval Guidance tab.

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