Labour plays numeracy card

The Labour party is expected to move further towards a traditionalist education policy by launching a numeracy task force at the National Union of Teachers' conference next week.

The party has already shown that it is willing to take a tough line on reading and writing by insisting that poverty should not excuse acceptable literacy standards in primaries.

Now it is turning its attention to the third R, arithmetic. Maths is the subject causing most concern among education specialists with British 13-year-ol ds coming bottom of a league of nine economic competitors in recent internationa l comparisons.

Labour's education and employment spokesman David Blunkett is thought to be keen to project a hard-nosed concern for classroom standards at the NUT,where debates have frequently been dominated by calls for classroom militancy. Two years ago Mr Blunkett found himself jostled by angry delegates after he was accused of wanting to sack underperforming teachers.

The numeracy task force is certain to show a keen interest in whole-class maths teaching, mental arithmetic and whole-class targets for achievement - some of the more traditional elements used in successful countries abroad like Switzerland and Taiwan.

The party's concern for the basic minimum standards could even set it at loggerheads with the Government's National Numeracy Project which has so far taken a more familiar approach to maths teaching. According to some critics, the project shies away from demanding instant recall of times-tables and other "number bonds". It also backs the sort of "differentiated" approach to children's learning which Labour appears to have turned against

All pupils, Labour is now arguing, should reach minimum standards unless they have severe special educational needs.

The numeracy task force is expected to be chaired by Professor David Reynolds, well-known for his interest in whole-class achievement, and in the participatory whole-class teaching used in Taiwan, a country which does well in internationa l comparisons. This featured in his recent report for the Office for Standards in Education entitled Worlds Apart and in a high-profile edition of the BBC's Panorama.

As the programme showed, Professor Reynolds is also impressed by the work done in the east London borough of Barking and Dagenham.

Emulating the methods used in Switzerland, the borough has introduced: detailed manuals to help teachers; whole-class teaching, with the desks in a horseshoe and an emphasis on pupil participation; minimum standards for the whole class - every child is expected to hit basic targets. All the pupils are taught to have instant recall of times tables.

David Blunkett is one of a number of politicians and educationists from across the political spectrum to have visited the scheme and expressed admiration.

Indeed many of its key elements are present in the interim report of Labour's National Literacy Task Force which seeks to raise expectations for all pupils, not just the most talented in a class. Labour has promised that every 11-year-old will hit the correct national curriculum standard by the end of a second term in office.

l There will be a de facto lowering of the school starting age unless there is an immediate review of the age at which children enter early years and primary provision, according to the chairman of the all-party Commons committee on education and employment.

In this week's TES, Sir Malcolm Thornton MP, says that too many young four-year-olds are entering school reception classes, as heads look to attract nursery vouchers.

Sir Malcolm, whose committee has recently completed an investigation of the nursery vouchers scheme, argues that private nurseries and school reception classes must compete on equal terms if nursery education is to expand.

As things stand, private nurseries must have one member of staff for every eight three or four-year-olds, whole school reception classes can have 35 pupils.

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