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A cool look at the evidence

Last week David Blunkett, Secretary of State of Education and Employment, announced the Government's ambitious targets for primary children's achievements in literacy and numeracy. For literacy, the interim report of the literacy task force is already on Ministers' desks; the task is just beginning for the numeracy task force.

Levels of numeracy among British children now give even more cause for concern than their levels of literacy:

* the proportion of children at age 11 getting the target of "Level 4 or better" on maths in the standard assessment tasks is only 55 per cent and lower than the rate for English

* international surveys such as The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), published last year, show a poor British performance, with numeracy levels below those of the great majority of our industrial competitors

* a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operatio n and Development (OECD) survey of numeracy among young adults in different countries also showed a relatively very poor British performance, particularly among those who have recently left school

* surveys suggest that our numeracy levels may have been worsening over time

* the delivery of maths and maths teaching at key stage 2 have been particularly criticised by the Office for Standards in Education.

But it's not all bad news. Our performance in certain of the maths skill areas is better than that in our worst area of arithmetic. The performance of our more able pupils is in some surveys relatively good. The results of our older pupils seem to be better than those of our younger pupils, reflecting the education given in British sixth forms. But overall the political, professional and parental concerns about maths do seem to be justified.

The numeracy task force will help to put this situation to rights by reviewing the scale of these problems, understanding their causes and devising policies to improve the situation.

While issues such as calculator usage - which we have rightly been asked to look at by David Blunkett - will concern us, we are not constrained in what we do in any way. Specifically, we will:

* review the existing knowledge about the effective teaching of maths and judge the extent to which the actual methods of teaching need to be different from those in other subjects

* review the international knowledge base about which countries do well and try to discover how they do it

* review the school effectiveness knowledge base and discover what it is at school level that may potentiate numeracy

* re-analyse the lessons of some of the major studies of maths undertaken by the Assessment of Performance Unit in the 1980s and by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) more recently, such as the TIMSS study

* consider the policy changes that have been made over the past 20 years in the maths curriculum and in maths teaching to judge their appropriateness

* reach conclusions about where the British maths problems are most acute,since some studies suggest the problem is our "long trailing edge" of children with low scores, while others suggest it is our "average" children who are falling behind those of other countries.

We aim to be as exhaustive as we can and as scientific as is possible in our work as a task force over the eight months that we have to do our job, since the issue of numeracy standards has historically generated far too much heat and far too little light. We want to base our work on evidence, not on ideology or conjecture. At the same time we also want to be able to gather evidence from headteachers, teachers, parents and local education authorities about effective practices and programmes, even though these may still be too novel or too small in scale to have featured in research literature.

We will not interpret our task broadly. We want to explore the issues about the "non school" determinants of our numeracy problem and particularly to investigate the extent to which British society may possess a culture that is "maths phobic". The extent to which teachers themselves have these same concerns about maths also needs investigating, as does the extent to which the performance levels of other societies are because of their general cultural attitudes towards maths, as may be the case in those Pacific Rim societies like Taiwan that have received so much attention recently.

Because of our relatively poor performance in maths internationally, it is clearly important that we look outside the United Kingdom for evidence of potentially effective practices for us to try out. Examples are numerous:

* societies like Taiwan and Switzerland practise "whole class interactive" teaching, in which the teacher is the centre of the class and instructs the class for perhaps 85-90 per cent of the time, and in which there are very high levels of pupils' involvement through them giving answers to questions, peer tutoring and in numerous other ways

* many other societies resource their educational systems by the use of manuals for teachers that give detailed guidance on curriculum content and teaching methods, and by the use of textbooks for pupils that prevent the need for teachers to create their own "homemade" worksheets

* many other educational systems start their schooling without the heavy emphasis on the inculcation of knowledge that has been the emphasis of the national curriculum, preferring instead to spend the first year of schooling in ensuring children have acquired the habits of mind on which their future acquisition of skills will depend

* many other societies have a supply of teachers at a higher level of mathematical knowledge than ours, since they ensure exposure to maths by using a broader based "baccalaureat " system for ages 16-18, by comparison with our narrow range of subjects which restricts exposure to maths.

We will not fall prey to the assumptions that because a policy appears to work somewhere else it will automatically work in a British context, and we will not commit the frequently made error of assuming that the reasons for other countries' success in maths is entirely the result of their educational policies and not at all the result of their cultures, social structures and community structures. We will aim to be balanced but would still very much want to bring home for our use in Britain those things of use from the white cliffs of Dover.

We will also want to explore the policies that are necessary to get effective teaching and effective learning in place at national, local education authority, individual school and individual classroom level. The task force, therefore, aims to be exhaustive in the range of its concerns and inclusive in the interest groups it recognises. It's own membership includes leading researchers, practitioners, policy makers and representatives of the business community who receive the "outcomes" of the educational system.

We will use the meetings before the summer holidays to discuss the key issues and problems identified by members, and will then use the summer to conduct an encyclopedic review of research evidence, policy and practice in maths.

We will be asking teachers and other practitioners to let us have details of their views and their effective programmes, as they respond to the "Call for Submissions" which will be sent to all interested parties later this year. Our meetings in the autumn will be used to prepare an interim report to be issued by the end of November for consultation which will be followed by a final report at the end of January 1998.

We look forward to our task and to working with maths educators in England and Wales.

Numeracy task force:

David Reynolds (chair), professor of eduction at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne; Margaret Brown, professor of maths education at King's College, London; Professor David Burghes, Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching at the University of Exeter; Professor Chris Robson, University of Leeds and chair of the Joint Mathematical Forum; Anita Straker, director of the National Numeracy Project; Carol Robinson, head of William Ford Primary School in Barking and Dagenham; Martin Armstrong, deputy head of Marlwood School, South Gloucester shire; Margaret Dawes from KPMG consultants; Pat Petch, from the National Governors Council; and Anne Waterhouse, head of Ormskirk Asmall County Primary, Lancashire.

Anyone with evidence or views on maths education should write to Professor David Reynolds, Department of Education, University of Newcastle,St Thomas Street, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU.

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