HEADTEACHERS and education bosses know all about sales pitches from commercial and social companies promising products that will be a boon to learning. Some of these products will be good, some not so good. The key criterion is whether they are backed up by objective research conducted by independent bodies.

For example, the online maths learning system created by Edinburgh-based education technology company Sumdog appears to have passed the test so far. Its own research produced excellent results, showing a contribution to reducing the attainment gap for numeracy between rich and poor pupils.

Its use of app-based computer games has seen poorer pupils spending more time learning. The activities are fun, challenging and stimulating – a long way from the distant past’s learning by rote. In some ways, it doesn’t even feel like schoolwork.

Which is all very well – as long as it works. In this instance, the kind of approach taken by Sumdog had already been subject to analysis by an independent academic at Edinburgh Napier University who found it had “a highly significant, positive impact on improvement in mathematics proficiency”.

In terms of wider policy objectives, the Sumdog project’s apparently positive impact on closing the attainment gap, at least in mathematics, has led to it receiving much interest from education chiefs, with Glasgow City Council entering into a partnership with the social enterprise company.

The interesting aspect here is not just the company’s own declared aim of doing its bit to close the attainment gap but also, in terms of wider practice, the importance of having independent research to back up claims. Through the Pupil Equity Fund, operating under the aegis of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, headteachers in poorer areas have monies to spend on projects or products that could prove useful to pupils at risk of lagging behind.

As with local authorities on a larger scale, it is important that heads are able to make informed decisions based on independent research that backs up claims made by companies and other organisations. Obviously, companies cannot insist that a university verify or otherwise their product, but they can point to independent studies that support the principles behind it. And such support has to be the sine qua non before any relationships are entered into, particularly at a time of wider budget restrictions.

Companies with clear social missions know the importance of this, hence the focus on scientific research in this latest computer-based learning initiative, though we have to hope the mathematical ability can be carried beyond the world of games.

Anything that works and helps close the attainment gap is welcome. Indeed, from the perspective of many pupils, anything that makes maths fun and interesting must appear almost miraculous.