As a culture, we tend to be nervous about our mathematical ability - a feeling easily passed on to children. We may say "I'm terrible at maths", but never "I'm dreadful at reading". Adult volunteers in schools are usually happier to help with reading than with numeracy.
By playing games that make maths fun and take the spotlight off the need for correct answers, an enormous impact can be made on the confidence of adults and children. Three years ago, Ian Kilshaw, at Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnership, noted the success of the charity's Reading Partners scheme, which paired children with local businesspeople for regular reading help. He decided to try a similar scheme in numeracy. Number Partners began with volunteers from local businesses spending a half-hour a week playing maths-related board games, such as ludo and snakes and ladders, with small groups of children.
As the scheme developed, it became clear that children would benefit from a more targeted approach, with games matched to their level of ability. Mr Kilshaw contacted BEAM (Be A Mathematician), the primary maths development and training team, for ideas. After trials in London schools, the result was a set of 12 lively "number challenge" games for six to 11-year-olds. Easy to play, each game is based on specific number skills, such as addition and subtraction, a times table or, for more competent pupils, a range of calculations.
The games have titles such as Mountain Rescue, and are attractively boxed with interesting counters, dice and cards to collect. The presentation, and the fact that the games are not normally used in lessons, "help to make the children feel special," says BEAM director Sheila Ebbutt. Winning depends as much on luck as on knowing the answer. And for those pupils not sure of the five-times table, for example, the game boards include panels to help them work it out.
"The main aim is to reinforce the national numeracy strategy and its focus on mental maths," Sheila Ebbutt says. "The games are a way of doing number practice in an interesting context."
The children from Arnhem Wharf primary school, on the Isle of Dogs, who take part every Wednesday lunchtime, show every sign of enjoying themselves. They play in groups of two or three. Each group is joined by a volunteer from Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, a financial services firm located nearby. As they play, the noise reaches an excited crescendo in the hubbub of furious dice-throwing, while fast mental calculations take place.
"It's quite good," says 10-year-old Jordan, in the middle of a game that involves doubling numbers. "It feels like you're doing maths, but it's more fun. This kind of maths makes me learn stuff that I haven't seen before."
Nazir, 11, playing Mountain Rescue, likes the way the game gives a choice of calculations. "Maths at school is really hard, but it's easier with a game, because you're enjoying throwing the dice and doing sums. And some of them are eay."
Arnhem Wharf children have been selected for the scheme for a variety of reasons, explains Amanda Philips, the headteacher. Some need more practice in numeracy. For others, the weekly half-hour is an important chance to develop oral and social skills. Many pupils at the school, Amanda Philips says, have little chance of getting to know adults as role models, outside their immediate environment. "Building a relationship with someone who isn't a teacher - who comes from outside - makes such a difference to them," she says.
For the volunteers, there are different benefits. "It's good to get away from the office and meet the children," says Clarinda Casey, who works in Morgan Stanley's operations risk team. "It refreshes you in the middle of the day - you can't think about work while you're playing the games."
"It's completely different," says Penny Cowing, project manager in Morgan Stanley's operations department, who has been playing maths games with the same two boys since the autumn. "It's wonderful to see the children develop and these two have come on enormously."
Some 380 businesspeople, working for 27 different companies, are involved with 30 schools in the Number Partners scheme in Tower Hamlets. There are plans for the scheme to go nationwide. The BEAM games have become an integral part of the scheme, but they could be used by classroom assistants or parents, in school or at home, to stimulate mathematical activity in an anxiety-free context.
"The provision of games always helps children's learning," says Amanda Philips at Arnhem Wharf school. "These number games give us an added opportunity for that."
BEAM number challenge games cost pound;14 + VAT each or pound;120 +VAT for a set of 12. For more details call 020 7684 3323 or visit www.beam.co.uk
HOW TO PLAY TIMES SQUARE
This game is for two or three players and tests children's multiplication skills up to 10 x 10. The players tour the streets and avenues of New York. The longer the straight routes they follow - represented by coloured counters on the board - the more sightseeing points they score.
Each player spins the two spinners, numbered one to 10, in turn. They must then multiply the number on one by the number on the other - for example, 10 x 10, 2 x 7 - and place one of their coloured counters on the right answer on the board. (The board takes the form of a multiplication square to help those who have difficulty working out the answer.) As the game progresses, players try to place their counters on adjoining squares, in horizontal, vertical or diagonal lines, and at the end of the game, score sightseeing points accordingly. A stack of "second chance" cards gives players chances to spin the spinners for a second time, trying for a more profitable answer.
This game is ideal for children who know their tables, but need to brush up. Playing it with my own two children (aged eight and six), I was impressed by the way the momentum of the game took the focus off the calculating process, so that they were quickly producing correct answers almost without thinking about it.
No pressure, no bad temper, just a bit of fun and lots of valuable practice.