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Distant answer

A Suffolk school teamed up with one in South Africa to investigate maths problems via video-conferencing. David Bocking reports.

The problem with mathematics, says Geraldine Ciantar, is that children don't know why they do it. At St Mary's Primary School in Mildenhall, Suffolk, staff are hoping a group of children on the other side of the world might provide some answers.

Geraldine, St Mary's assistant head, will soon watch her 9 to 11-year-old pupils take part in a mathematical science experiment alongside scores of contemporaries from Lancashire, Cape Town and possibly even Tasmania.

The multinational pupils will be joined by their teachers and, together with a child-friendly mathematician from Cambridge University's Millennium Mathematics Project, will meet through broadband video-conferencing to discuss how different sized balls roll down variably-angled ramps.

"It's problem-solving rather than pure maths," explains St Mary's head Wendy Garrard. "The children will have to talk through what they're doing, and if you want children from one country and another to communicate, it's not only about talking. By using video-conferencing, they're sharing by seeing."

St Mary's established links with Oranjekloof Moravian Primary School near Cape Town 18 months ago, when Wendy presented the staff and 700 pupils of Oranjekloof with pound;1,500 worth of resources bought after fundraising by children and staff at St Mary's.

Wendy, a maths teacher, taught her South African colleagues how to use the number sticks and fans and 100 squares familiar to British teachers, which were a revelation to a school where maths equipment consisted of paper, pencils, and chalkboards.

Wendy also introduced the Oranjekloof staff to two mathematics evangelists from Cambridge University, Bernard Bagnall and Toni Beardon, who devise ways to persuade children that mathematics is both relevant and fun.

Toni says: "Using a video-conference is a means to get children to converse about maths. They're working on an open-ended investigation, so the children talk and ask questions and learn from each other. It is challenging, even daunting for a child to give a maths presentation to a big audience, but afterwards they all say they're happy to have done it."

Toni works for the Motivate arm of the Millennium Mathematics Project, which sets up maths and science video-conferencing for children aged from 5 to 18. The conferences often involve schools from different countries working on projects designed to appeal to non-academics. All the conference tasks aim to demonstrate that maths is open to discussion. "We want the children to realise that mathematics is an ever-changing, living subject," says Toni.

A conference session for teenagers last year included, for example, a two-day session on the transit of Venus, with a mass sleepover in a school near Soweto. Toni lectures for part of the year at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences and her students have helped schools such as Oranjekloof develop maths clubs.

Oranjekloof acting principal Enid Davis says: "Our children don't realise they're doing maths because the sessions are planned to be exciting and playful."

The South African school staff have found the links with England a revelation. Most of the children and staff at Oranjekloof are black, and Enid admits to being impressed by the way she and her colleagues have been treated as equals by the Cambridge university academics. "Toni is so eager," says Enid. "I love having her in the school. The children and the teachers are excited about maths now, and they realise its importance. For example, their parents may be illiterate, but now the children can go and help their grandmas to do the shopping."

She says, they can now realistically look forward to careers in the professions or finance. For St Mary's, the link with Oranjekloof is about understanding other cultures, as well as getting excited about maths.

Wendy says: "It's easy for English children to say: 'What a shame. Poor African children', but working on a piece of mathematical science alongside their African contemporaries will soon bring home the similarities between the two groups of children."

St Mary's uses the facilities of nearby Mildenhall College for the conferences, and Wendy believes other schools should be encouraged to make use of similar local facilities. "This type of communication will soon be growing rapidly. It is the future."

It is still early days for the maths links between the schools in Mildenhall and Cape Town, but Wendy and Enid are sure of the project's success - already staff from both schools have visited and learned from each other, thanks to grants from the British Council and funding from St Mary's. And in the summer, the African and English children will take part in their second video conference, this time on the subject of robots made from a small motor, cotton reels, pencils and elastic bands.

"It's about exhilaration and enjoyment for the children," says Wendy.

"We have become so much richer in experiencing different methods of teaching maths," says Enid. "And we've given our children the confidence that they can compete and communicate maths globally."

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The TES has launched the Make the Link awards scheme with prize money totalling pound;25,000 for schools and colleges with the best world and European partnerships. Go to the website at to download the entry form

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