Since last September the city's five to 14-year-olds have been given 10-minute daily oral sessions to exercise their calculating muscles and develop a feel for number.
Results have been noticed already - at Earl Marshall comprehensive, for instance, one of the schools named as failing last May, inspectors have seen significant improvement in Years 7 and 8.
Numerous surveys have shown that British children fall behind those of other countries because they lack the skills to manipulate numbers confidently. While they show ability in the more sophisticated aspects of mathematics, they are handicapped by difficulties with calculation. The recent numeracy taskforce consultation document also stressed the need for dedicated time in maths lessons for improving these skills.
Sylvia Bluff, Sheffield's maths curriculum adviser, says that the project was born because teachers were becoming increasingly worried by the lack of basic numeracy among older children.
In secondary as well as primary schools, pupils were resorting to counting on their fingers and even trying to add up by drawing little marks on paper. The effort expended on trying to remember the correct procedure was also obscuring the purpose of the calculations. Most of the city's 147 primaries and 28 secondaries have now tried out the scheme.
Sylvia Bluff admits it is important that the oral sessions do not frighten the children and put them off the subject; the idea is to help them make connections as well as memorise facts. All the children are involved in the sessions, which include whole-class chanting, holding up number cards to answer a question and pupils working in pairs to test each other.
Developing Mental and Oral Number Skills. From Sheffield educational service, Bannerdale Curriculum Centre, Bannerdale Road, Sheffield, tel 0114 250 6859