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A day in the life of a numeracy consultant

Hilary Wilce joins Chris Ashley-Jones and 15 teaching assistants for calculations and coffee

Okay," says Chris Ashley-Jones, "this morning we're going to be moving on to all the different methods of calculation and how they fit together.

We'll do addition before the break and subtraction afterwards."

Mr Ashley-Jones, 35, is the London borough of Croydon's only full-time numeracy consultant. It's a blustery Monday morning in January and dark clouds are whipping over the sky outside. It may not be the most cheering start to the week, but in the staffroom of Castle Hill primary in New Addington, 15 of the school's teaching assistants seem happy to settle to the latest session of their maths course, and for the former schoolteacher to take them through the different ways of adding up. The new primary strategy encourages schools to begin developing their own approaches to the basics of literacy and numeracy, and this is part of what is happening here.

"We're going to be working to the school's maths policy, which was written by the maths co-ordinator and the staff, with some help from me, and which the school has been using since September," Mr Ashley-Jones (pictured above) explains. "You'll probably have three groups in your class working at different levels, all doing things in different ways, and you need to have an understanding of why they are doing what they are doing."

Children, he tells the teaching assistants, always need to approach a calculation by asking themselves some questions: Can I do it in my head? What's the approximate size of the answer? If I can't do it in my head, what do I need to write down to help me calculate the answer? An hour later, after a lucid tour of number lines, expanded addition and the compact form of calculation, it's time to break for coffee. "This is really useful, because the teachers don't always have time to pass down to us what they're doing, they're so busy," says Sandra Lewis, who works with Year 3.

Meanwhile, Julie Muir, who works in the school's specialist autistic unit, says she has already picked up useful tips from earlier sessions. And it's really important, says Glenys Dury, who works with Year 4, that everyone is "singing from the same song sheet".

Mr Ashley-Jones's aim is to make sure that teaching assistants know the school's numeracy policy: that, for example, they move the tens in sums to the same place - "under the doorstep", as one class in the school likes to call it - and that they understand the importance of helping children develop at their own pace.

"Remember," he says, "it's all about going with the child. If they don't 'get' something, you say, 'Okay, let's go back to what you were able to do, and feel confident with, and work from there.' We don't want them to have the same method bashed at them all year that they don't 'get'."

The demands on his time, and that of the borough's other part-time consultants (adding up to the equivalent of two and a half full-timers), are relentless. After this, it's off to meet a colleague and plan another course, and later to visit a school to discuss setting up a maths evening for parents. And while the unveiling of the new strategy has not affected the essence of his work, it has probably created more of it. "I currently have three or four staff meetings a week, and I also do a lot of demonstration lessons," he says.

Much of his time is spent supporting schools as they work out how to strengthen their maths teaching - work that is as much about taking the time to build relationships as focusing on the curriculum. "Schools don't always tell you everything that's going on the first time you go to them.

You have to be around enough to get the feeling for what's really going on there."

However, the strategy has also meant being able to use "some very good new courses", either extending the use of ICT in maths or helping teachers to think more closely about how they teach. "We have a five-day course that we call the three- and two-day course, where teachers have three days with us and two days in their class, which is very popular.

"And there are more courses now that are looking at numeracy and literacy together. So, if a school wants to focus on something like developing children's dialogue, and their speaking and listening, I'll look at how we can get them talking more about maths and explaining more what they are doing as they do it."

Mr Ashley-Jones became a consultant in autumn 2002, after teaching in Lambeth and Southwark. "It's a fantastic job," he says. "You see so many different schools, and it's so varied. Every day is different."

Added expertise Across England, about 900 consultants are being appointed to support the primary strategy, funded until 2006. In addition to literacy and numeracy, they will specialise in assessment for learning, ICT, the foundation stage, behaviour, and speaking and listening. Each is to have general primary knowledge as well. There will also be 4,000 "leading teachers", whose schools receive funding to release them from class to work with teachers in other schools.

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