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Give a glow to bright sparks

Q A parent of a bright child asked me at a parents evening how his son was getting on and insisted that his son should take GCSE mathematics early. I told him his son was doing extremely well, was well ahead of the rest of the class and most of the work was too easy for him. He wanted to know what I was doing to stretch him and I admitted I didn't have time to produce individual work for him and that my main priority was the other 31 in the group. Was I right to be honest with him?

Mrs King, Cardiff

A If I had been the parent I would have wanted to see the head of mathematics. A one hour lesson three times a week severely restricts how much you are able to achieve. Stretching the able and supporting those with difficulties, all within a large teaching group is indeed daunting. The problem of extending bright pupils is exacerbated when a school does not have enough specialists or there is a series of temporary teachers . What you mustn't forget, however, is that a motivated learner can be a very independent learner.

Sometimes I feel that mathematics is made too easy for the bright spark. We should encourage them to read a variety of texts around subjects that are not on the curriculum, learning set theory, perhaps. Otherwise they are at a disadvantage when they begin an A-level course and even more so when they begin to read for their degree.

Many topics are not very accessible and publishers could help by developing texts which provide more intermediate steps for pupils. For practical help for this boy, your local university or teacher training college might offer some useful backup. See how other schools in your area cope and see if you can work together.

I would meet the parent and child again. You should prepare some ideas that the school could use to extend the boy's work, both in and out of school. The discussion should include reference to how he is to be supported, and what would happen if he took GCSE early. I would encourage the boy to develop an interest in a particular area of maths. The boy is then an independent learner and in control of his work.

Other ideas might be:

* Teaming with an A-level student, to create an extension study group within the school.

* Becoming a peer tutor to less able pupils, perhaps in year 7, to challenge his conceptual understanding.

* Designing a website to encourage a group of like-minded people to create an online study group.

* Investigate Royal Institute Masterclasses at http:.ri.ac.ukschools

* Visit www.nrich.maths.org which provides enrichment in maths and where pupils can talk to researching mathematicians. The Nrich group also provides interesting problems.

* Investigate other maths clubs through www.schoolzone.co.uk

* A website that provides some form of continuity is www.samlearning.com This site encourages pupils to take responsibility for their own learning and monitors their progress.

Taking GCSE maths early is not a problem, what is, however, is the need for a follow through in the post-GCSE period so that the pupil does not become disillusioned and bored.

Q How do other maths teachers cope with a day or two's absence or having time out for a course? I have just had three days off with a stomach bug - it's been doing the rounds. I feel really depressed as now I face a mountain of work. There is so much preparation to do when you are away and then marking the work when you get back. At our school, if you are ill you have to ring in the work first thing in the morning, the last thing you feel like doing.

A Kevin Pankhurst, head of maths at Pilton Community College had a brilliant way of solving this. As a team, we were asked to produce about three "absence envelopes" for each of our classes at the begining of the year. He kept them in his cupboard and of course if you were absent then the lessons were already pre-prepared.

The most important part was that these should be self-contained so that the work could be completed and marked in a lesson. Any helpful hints for the covering teacher of course eases their stress loads.

Wendy Fortescue-Hubbard is a teacher and game inventor. She has been awarded a three-year fellowship by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) to spread maths to the masses. Email your questions to Mathagony Aunt at teacher@tes.co.ukOr write to TES Teacher, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX

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