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High flyers make algebra a breeze

David Bocking reports on a touring RAFworkshop that illustrates the relevance of maths in everyday life

"What happens at an RAF base?" asks maths teacher Alistair Grammer. "You get shot?" suggests a 15-year-old. "Not usually," says Alistair, whose reply is carefully honed after visits to dozens of schools around the country.

He's thinking more of cargo loading, maintaining security equipment, navigation, piloting, monitoring health and safety, and preparing beans on toast for several dozen air crew. Alistair and fellow twenty-something maths teacher Emma Clamp are dressed in sky blue T-shirts with RAF roundels on their chests and the RAF careers website url on their backs.

Their task today is to make maths interesting to a group of entry level Year 10 students from Holywell High School in Flintshire, Wales. The Maths Workshop tour is part of the RAF's four-year-old maths education programme, which includes a website ( containing maths activities and resources for key stages 3-4, and a Windows CD-Rom, also for 11 to 16-year-olds, based on 10 RAF jobs. The resource includes quizzes, puzzles and "maths missions" which can be adapted to three ability levels. The aim is to show students that maths is used in the real world.

"For example," says Alistair. "we're showing them a nice formula about puddings and meat in the catering department.

So when they come to do algebra in the textbook, they can draw a link. They can see that algebra does have a use."

Emma and Alistair are supply teachers, trained for the workshops by the RAF. The two-hour sessions are for several small groups working on seven activities, each of which introduces a maths skill used by the RAF. The catering manager has to work out weights of ingredients using basic algebra, the cargo handler has to use spatial awareness and simple arithmetic, the security staff have to use logic and probability to plan their searches and CCTV networks, the navigator has to read a map, plot co-ordinates and use arithmetic and algebra, and the health and safety operatives have to collate test results and work out average decibel readings.

It's often a revelation for the pupils that they've been using maths, says Emma: "They're picking up bits from each part of the curriculum. For lower ability students, you often need something more stimulating, you can't just teach them from a textbook, and it's good to show them how you'd use things like formulas in the real world."

Stephen Smith is head of maths at Holywell: "There aren't many activities where you can see maths in action at the lower ability end, and this workshop is an opportunity for pupils to see there are things beyond textbooks and classrooms. In chemistry you can show them things in the lab, but in maths they might say 'What am I doing this for? Who uses this?'

Hopefully with this they'll see."

Although the activities are curriculum related, Stephen believes his pupils are learning more basic skills: "They're measuring, recording, trying to be systematic, reading instructions, they're using the secondary skills which will help them in their coursework. Here they're thinking in a logical format and problem solving because they want to."

Alistair says: "We want to show that maths in the classroom isn't boring and irrelevant. We want to get over that hurdle of seeing maths as an obstacle, and show that it's a way of doing your work."

Stephen is aware that the air force has recruiting in mind when it offers the workshops - the sessions are arranged through recruitment offices. And the RAF is open about its reasons for taking maths to schools.

As Group Captain Dawn McCafferty from the RAF's Inspectorate of Recruiting says: "We want the children to come and have a fun maths lesson and go home and talk about it with their parents and sisters and brothers, and say we had a fun day doing things with the RAF. It's not hard recruiting, but a subtle way of spreading the message."

The approach from Dawn and Flight Sergeant Bryn Jones from the local recruitment office is simply to be there to help and answer questions, however, and the preliminary Top Gun-style video of fighter jets lasts only a few seconds. "The RAF made it clear that the workshop was to do with recruiting," says Stephen Smith. "We know there has to be something in it for them, but our pupils have gained from these activities."

Katie Smith has already decided to pursue a career in the forces. "This has taught me to read instructions properly," says Katie, 14. "Doing something like this gets you to use your brain more."

Gareth Hughes, 15, says: "Before, I'd have said 'Oh, boring maths'. But now I've done this, I think maybe you do need to use it."

Fourteen-year-old Dewi Hughes says: "It's been brilliant. Better than doing normal lessons. And I've heard it's good money."

l The CD-Rom and workshops are free, but the RAF sets up sessions in batches so places cannot be guaranteed.

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