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Mix-and-match mathematics

Barnet is one of north London's leafiest boroughs but The Compton School, which opened its doors to a five-form comprehensive intake in September 1992, is not in a particularly leafy corner. Multi-ethnic, feeding from a large council estate, it begins with its share of educational problems. But while the pupils are mostly below the national average on its maths assessments on entry to the school, they were well above the average in the most recent SATs (1995) for year 9. This is added value with a vengeance.

In devising an individualised maths scheme - for mixed-ability classes as well as the set groups in Years 9, 10 and 11 - head of maths Carolyn Hume and her department have drawn on a wide range of materials and their own inventiveness. Disenchanted both with "traditional" whole-class teaching and with what can come to seem a boring progression through one published scheme, they have developed a method which enables pupils to control their own rate of advancement and teachers to assess individuals in a very detailed way.

The system is highly complex, demanding maximum input from a dedicated staff which constantly reviews and updates it. Yet it is very popular with pupils and teachers alike, 0reflected in the enthusiasm with which the pupils tackle a subject which is commonly feared.

Taking material from a variety of published schemes, and when need arises adding their own investigative projects, the maths team has managed to give pupils an exciting sense of control about their maths learning. So much so that when they work as a whole class, which they do for at least two projects a term, the classes yearn to go back to the "boxes" - containers full of cards listing materials relevant to maths topics. The topics are graded as to difficulty and sorted as to area: number, shape, data-handling and measurement at the moment, but due to be cut down as the national curriculum changes.

How does it work? The teacher chooses a suitable topic for each child, guided either by a need for variety or an instinct to build on a developing strength. He or she talks the child briefly through, gives him or her a sheet (to put in their individual record book) listing all the materials relevant with the ones which the teacher thinks will suit the pupils highlighted. When the pupils have covered about half of the materials, marking themselves, they sit an assessment paper under fairly strict conditions.

If they gain more than 80 per cent and can explain the topic to the teacher, they are deemed to have passed that unit and can move on to another, with the result entered on the record sheet. If they get less than 80 per cent, the teacher will talk with them some more and encourage them to work further on the listed materials. They will then be tested once or twice more, depending on how quickly they advance.

In the Compton School, where the top children are still only in Year 10 and the first GCSEs only arrive next year, the scheme is cherished and children thrive. On a visit there, The TES was struck by the energy and enthusiasm of the children and the easy rapport they had with their teachers. Such a scheme is a solution to making mixed ability classes work. In two classes of 12-year- olds, I saw pupils measuring their height, making 3-D models of polygons, working on money, drawing a number-line for negative numbers and using a calculator to work out trigonometric functions.

They were also answering plane geometry exercises from a textbook, drawing a "multiplication train", running back and forth to the playground to measure speed and distance (accompanied by a note of permission) and writing up the results of a data-handling project.

The teacher was always at hand to help and advise, point in the direction of new work and arrange assessment. Children worked on their own, in couples or small groups and spoke earnestly about their work. The classrooms were happy and purposeful.

The Compton's mix-and-match scheme not only caters for mixed ability, it also allows teachers to monitor closely how thoroughly children have understood different components of the curriculum and enables them to register individual problems in any particular topic (say, negative numbers) or general area (say, number). Far more accurate records of individual achievement can, therefore, be kept.

The disadvantages of the scheme are that it depends so much on the energy and resourcefulness of the teaching staff. If they should get tired of answering 30 questions on different topics or spend too long on any one query, the class could lose its impetus.

These dangers are more than compensated for, believes Carolyn Hume, by the interest generated. "At my previous school, children used to get bored and turned off by maths. That just doesn't happen here. Children who came into school saying they hated the subject now say it's their favourite."

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