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Black boys 'fall behind in maths'

Susan Young reports on research that shows a cycle of inequality in the early years of school. Black boys start falling behind in maths as early as their second year in school, according to research carried out in inner London.

Moreover, white children spent more time on the subject than African-Caribbean children, covering more of the curriculum during school hours. "These findings suggest that a 'cycle of inequality' is already present in the early years of school, and that particular attention must be given to the situation of young black children - and particularly boys - if this is to be effectively challenged," says an account of the study, published by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Ian Plewis, of the Thomas Coram Research Unit at London's Institute of Education, who directed the 10-year project, said he did not believe the findings could be explained by discriminatory treatment in classrooms. "Rather, the African-Caribbean boys tend to be in classes where less of the maths curriculum is covered. If the class is fairly evenly divided between two groups of children, they do the same amount of maths. That isn't the case with African-Caribbean children who tend to be over-represented in some classrooms with some teachers, and those teachers tend to be doing less maths. White children in those classes are also doing less maths, but there are fewer of them.

"It could be that these teachers are working in areas where there is a lot of disadvantage and they are therefore finding it difficult to get through the curriculum in the way that teachers of classes where there are fewer problems are not, but this is speculation."

The project, part of an Economic and Social Research Council-funded research programme on innovation and change in schools as a result of the Education Reform Act, also found schooldays for seven-year-olds had become more academic than a decade ago. More time was being spent on science, and less on creative activities such as arts and construction.

Variations between schools were being ironed out, with a much more uniform coverage of maths for children in their second year than a decade ago. However, the first year of infant school still showed wide variation, and there was not much connection between the way the maths curriculum was taught in Year 1 and Year 2. A more co-ordinated approach to maths teaching is needed across the first two years in school, the research team suggests.

And despite the intentions of the reforms, there had been virtually no change in the amount of time spent on the "basics" of reading, writing and mathematics. On average, children spent only eight minutes a week reading aloud to their teachers.

Mr Plewis, whose earlier research found that six-year-olds spent twice as much time reading aloud at home than at school, suggests that a strengthening of homeschool links might be a more effective way of raising reading standards than trying to find more time within a crowded school day.

The ESRC has carried out 10 projects around the country on the Education Reform Act, and it has come up with four main conclusions. It says: * Reforms have had little apparent effect on time spent on the basics at key stage 1 and teachers need clearer guidance about priorities.

* Secondary schools should pay greater attention to topics which cut across the national curriculum, such as knowledge about language and social education.

* Schools need to improve communication with parents.

* Schools can gain by listening to pupils about effective teaching and learning, and about the conditions which motivate them.

Projects carried out under the ESRC umbrella included learning about grammar across the curriculum: Professor Christopher Brumfit and Dr Rosamond Mitchell at the University of Southampton found secondary pupils receiving "very mixed messages".

Teachers of foreign languages tended to emphasise formal teaching about grammar, while English teachers paid little explicit attention to it. One possible result was that pupils' understanding of grammar was not high. Children of 13 and 14 showed grammatical competence in unscrambling texts and creating sentences from nonsense words, but their ability to comment on or explain their decision-making was very limited. Most pupils knew the names of a few parts of speech - such as noun or verb - but few could provide a proper definition of their meaning.

Researchers suggested clear policy guidelines were urgently needed, as was in-service training to help teachers' own knowledge.

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