Once a week, at lunchtime, a group of City employees leave their desks in the gleaming Square Mile and head east. Amid the crowded local authority estates, groups of eager young faces are waiting at the school gates to welcome their special visitors.
For half an hour, adults and children will play, perhaps board, dice or card games. This is the Number Partners scheme, a pilot project set up by Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnership (EBP) last year. It brings business volunteers into the classroom to help instil confidence and enhance numeracy skills. The programme was spawned by one of the EBP's most successful schemes, Reading Partners, which boasts more than 1,000 volunteers.
Number Partners is running in 13 Tower Hamlets primary schools. Pupils work with adults on a one-to-one basis or in small groups. Obstacles to educational achievement in Tower Hamlets include financial hardship and overcrowded living conditions affording little opportunity for private study.
Language is an extra barrier. Large numbers of children come from Asian families where English is not spoken at home. Parents often lack a formal education and their ability to help with school work is limited.
"The benefits of having an adult spend quality time with a young person cannot be underestimated," says Ian Kilshaw of Tower Hamlets EBP. "It's not just about helping to improve numeracy skills, the programme develops all-round confidence and motivation to learn."
There are other spin-offs. With volunteers from financial organisations such as Bloomberg's, Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, Herbert Smith and the Financial Services Authority, the scheme offers children a positive insight into the business world. Workplace visits and learning about the volunteers' jobs help to lessen the "them and us" syndrome and give children something to which they can aspire.
Meanwhile, the project is having a positive effect on attainment. An evaluation recently carried out by Tower Hamlets LEA's head of numeracy services cites several encouraging aspects. All of the schools visited reported an improvement in number skills. At Thomas Buxton Junior School in Bethnal Green, staff say the project has helped improve key stage 2 test results. At Woolmore School, teacher Matt Batchelor is optimistic. "It's still early days for us but already the children's confidence is growing. They play a variety of games to support number bonds and we see the scheme as a positive addition to our maths teaching."
The report also praises the "impressive commitment" of the volunteers. Rowena Kilmartin from Dresdner Kleinwort Benson co-ordinates 19 number partners. She explains: "People here say the scheme is brilliant. The relationship with the school is good, the partners love the games and many participants say it is an enjoyable break in what can be an intense and busy day."
Work is in hand to take up some of the report's recommendations. These include tailoring games and activities to children's individual needs and providing volunteers with a more effective means of monitoring progress. Tower Hamlets EBP has also begun working with publisher BEAM Education to develop support materials.
As Maths Year 2000 gets under way, plans are being liad to roll out the scheme to more schools. And there has been much interest in the concept from secondary schools, where a pilot for numeracy summer schools has just been completed.
Further details from Ian Kilshaw, Tower Hamlets EBP, 0171 377 9497 ext 219