Sarah Cassidy reports on ministerial schemes to improve mathematics performance, as English children fall further behind.
MINISTERS want all high-flying primary pupils to have the chance to take GCSE maths before they start secondary school.
Five hundred of England's brightest 11-year-olds will take the exam next year as part of a pilot scheme to stretch gifted children.
The Government will fund the pound;30,000 project which will eventually establish 12 advanced maths centres in inner-city primary schools across the country.
Nine and 10-year-olds will start GCSE courses this summer for exams in June 2001. Ministers hope the children will then take A-level maths early at secondary school.
The fast-track course is expected to cost pound;300 in fees to be paid by parents, schools or local authorities.
But ministers envisage a much wider scheme to enable every high-flying primary pupil to take maths GCSE early.
Pupils selected for the fast-track tuition would continue with their normal primary lessons but they would also receive advanced teaching in the evenings, at weekends and during their holidays.
The classes would be held at maths centres, based at local primary schools in areas targeted by the Excellence in Cities initiative.
The scheme was announced by Education Secretary David Blunkett at the launch of Maths Year 2000, the follow-up to the National Year of Reading which aims to overcome the nation's fear of numbers.
It will also be funded with a pound;25,000 grant from the educational philanthropist Peter Lampl and his charity the Sutton Trust.
This year around 45 11-year-olds will take the GCSE exam at one of two advanced maths centres run by the National Primary Trust, an educational charity in Birmingham and Sandwell.
Peter Frost, chief executive of the trust, said: "There is tremenous enthusiasm for the advanced maths programmes. We hope to open another 15 centres next year and eventually hope to have them all over the country so that every able pupil who wants do so can take GCSE maths before starting secondary school."
The children who will study at the new centres will be put forward for places by their teachers. Key stage 1 test scores taken by seven-year-olds will also be taken into account.
Final selection will be decided by the results of a test devised by the trust.
But teaching unions warned of the dangers of hothousing pupils.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Just because a child is good at maths doesn't mean they will be mature enough at age nine or 10 for the kind of intensive course leading to GCSE.
He said: "At that age some children will be up to it, some won't. There is also the danger of losing social contact with their peer group."
Mr Blunkett also announced an extra pound;9 million to support the national numeracy strategy - taking the total to pound;64m.
From April, primaries will receive an average of pound;1,000 to spend on maths equipment such as number lines, digit cards, dice or number games and puzzles.
Primary school heads say they have struggled to implement the Government's numeracy strategy because they do not have the maths books they need, according to a survey on school book-buying habits.
However, officials at the Department for Education and Employment say their research has shown that teachers believe more practical maths resources are needed, not textbooks.
Three-quarters of primaries spent less than pound;1,000 on maths books in the past academic year, 61 per cent spent less than pound;500 and nearly 4 per cent spent nothing at all, a survey of nearly 2,000 schools by the Educational Publishers Council found.