A FURRY monkey lies at the heart of a Staffordshire primary school's new numeracy hour.
The Mental Maths Monkey is used to teach six- and seven-year-olds that mental arithmetic can be fun. It is an integral part of the daily hour taught by numeracy co-ordinator Vanessa Britton at Cheslyn Hay primary school.
The numeracy framework was introduced nationally this term, hot on the heels of last September's literacy hour.
Although not strictly mandatory, the structured daily lessons of 45 to 60 minutes are central to the Government's target of bringing 75 per cent of 11-year-olds up to the required standard in maths by 2002. The lessons emphasise mental calculation and whole-class teaching, and cover the entire maths national curriculum, not just arithmetic.
The toy monkey joined the school's Year 2 class when Mrs Britton tried out her version of the strategy last summer, to ensure a smoother start this September.
The focus on quick-fire oral and mental maths was a new, often nerve-wracking, experience for many children. But Mrs Britton made it a game - calling out a pupil's name and a quick-fire question and throwing the monkey to the child. The pupil has to catch the toy, call out an answer and throw it back.
She said: "The more we can make it fun and exciting the more the children will learn. There is no shortage of volunteers to answer questions with the Mental Maths Monkey. I also use it in group work where I can tailor the questions to the ability of the group."
This week her six- and seven-year-olds were learning to count in tens and split two-digit numbers into tens and units.
Mrs Britton said: "The numeracy strategy is much more prescriptive. It is fine-tuning for us because we have always done at least 45 minutes of maths every day - but we were not necessarily doing quick-fire oral and mental maths. Now we are doing it consistently these skills are really being pushed.
"We plan from the framework but it is hard because it is all new - the content is familiar but the organising of it is very different."
Mrs Britton is unusually fortunate to have a full-time ancillary teacher for her class of 26 plus a parent-helper two days a week. But even with numbers on her side, the mechanics of the group work can be difficult.
She said: "They say you should ideally have three groups of ten, but obviously children do not come in such convenient divisions. There is an ability spread of four years in this class - the weakest can barely count to 10 and the most able are at the standard of eight-year-olds."
Money is also a problem. The school has spent pound;2,000 so far.
Mrs Britton said: "There are major resource implications for the strategy. The group mental maths needs to be supported by resources and games. We made 100 squares (for counting) because they were too expensive but that took an incredible amount of time.
"Even the most basic resource can cost pound;5. When you have 30 in a class that's a lot of money."
CHANGES COURTESY OF NUMERACY HOUR
Until Year 3, number work focuses on mental calculation, encouraging children to develop a range of mental strategies, learn number facts by heart and use them to deduce new facts.
Conventional vertical sums are deferred until Year 4. Younger children should use a horizontal format for writing calculations
Multiplication tables should now be learned by Year 5 rather than Year 6.