It's 9am in the main hall at Ben Jonson Primary School on the Ocean Estate in Tower Hamlets in London's east end. The room is packed with pupils and parents, who are here to take part in a session with maths teacher Sue Brown. Getting parents into school for subject events can be difficult. And when those parents come from a community where English is a second or third language, and when the subject is maths, it ought to be nearly impossible. Yet here they are; 80 pupils and parents, starting bang on time, ready to do some maths.
The Ocean Estate was identified as one of the most disadvantaged in the country, and was given a New Deal for Communities grant to fund a maths project that has succeeded in fostering links between home and school.
As part of the Ocean maths project, key stage 2 and 3 children from three primary and two secondary schools receive a booklet every two weeks for their homework. On the first page there is a starter puzzle to get them thinking. The inside spread folds out into a board game, which parents and children can play together. The final page gives a further activity to practise the skills rehearsed in the game.
The school-based workshop is one of a series which runs at the beginning of each term for every year group. The idea is to work through puzzles, games and activities in the same way as parents and children work with their homework packs throughout the term.
Many people will know Sue Brown as Hattie, the mathematical clown. She has long promoted teaching as a performance art. But today she's in plain clothes for an active and fun-filled session. Sue starts by inviting her audience to think of a small number, then a large number. "Is your number larger or smaller than your neighbour's?"
Five children come out and hold up large cards in turn. The first shows 51,900, the second 50,900. As each new card is revealed the audience is asked: "Which is larger?" When all five cards have been revealed, the audience helps the children put themselves in order.
Next, everyone plays a game with dice and the symbols for "greater than" and "less than" on small cards. This is followed by a game from one of the homework sheets, using spinners and dice to compare greater than or less than statements.
At the start, some parents were a bit reluctant to join in. But now, playing with their own children, they are all engaged. Sue finishes with a classic "think of a number" problem using dominoes (see box).
The parents I spoke to after the session felt more comfortable knowing they could help their children with their homework. They had heard very good things about the sessions from other parents so they knew it would be worth the time and effort to attend.
Charlie Gorman, Ben Jonson's deputy, who started the scheme in the school, is delighted with the take-up. Between half and three-quarters of parents across the years regularly attend the sessions. He has also seen a clear relationship between the sessions, homework and an improvement in maths.
He has worked closely with Pindar Singh, director of the Ocean maths project and, for the first two years, it's sole employee. He attributes a good measure of the success to Pindar's desire to listen to what schools wanted and to work to provide it.
In an area with a good number of projects, overload can be a real problem.
The school was clear that any new project must avoid making additional demands on teachers. Initially, the homework was marked by the project.
Detailed statistics are provided by project staff to support teacher assessment.
Jahanara Begum, recently recruited to the project team, runs drop-in sessions the day after the homework is set, to help any parents who need more guidance. These are well attended and amply demonstrate the level of engagement that has been generated.
The project is based at Stepney Green School, one of the two participating secondary schools. The school is bidding for maths and ICT specialist status and headteacher Sean McGrath is delighted to have the project on site: "It provides a focus for teacher development through it's supportive relationship with the maths department. They welcome the activities being fully in line with the numeracy strategy while providing a refreshing, activity-based, collaborative pedagogy. Most especially, the excellent attendance at the workshops and Pindar's abilities in bringing in members of the community have had a very positive impact on the school."
The greatest success, according to Halley Primary School's maths co-ordinator Mish Maflin, is that maths finds a place outside the classroom: "When the children come back saying that they played the games with mum or dad, they were actually thinking and talking maths with their parents, not the most common home activity."
Pindar Singh, the Ocean Mathematics Project, Stepney Green School, London Tel: 020 7790 6361
Take any domino.
Don't show me!
Look at the two numbers.
Take the bigger number and multiply by 5.
Add 7 to the answer.
Double that number.
Add the smaller domino number.
Tell me your answer and I can tell you which domino!
The trick is to take away 14 from the answer - eg, 87 - 14 = 73.
The domino is therefore 7 3.