The most effective teachers of primary mathematics are not necessarily those with A-levels or degrees in the subject, but they are more likely to have received in-service training.
The importance of INSET for maths teachers was one of the findings of a major study by a research team from King's College London into effective primary numeracy teaching, which looked at the work of 90 teachers and 2,000 pupils in 11 schools over two terms. One highly successful Year 6 teacher said that her in-service course was "a revelation which changed the way I thought about maths teaching".
Eight schools were chosen because their maths teaching was considered to be highly effective, two were regarded as "average" and one "weak". The effectiveness of teaching was measured by a specially designed test at the beginning and end of the project.
According to Professor Margaret Brown, the research has already persuaded the Teacher Training Agency, which funded it, to acknowledge that formal qualifications are not always enough to guarantee teaching quality.
One recent maths graduate said: "Degree maths is not relevant to primary maths." She admitted that she found it difficult to explain the links between fractions and decimals and had problems with metric units.
What distinguished the highly effective teachers was understanding of connections within areas of the maths curriculum. These connections - such as the links between fractions, decimals and percentages - were often made during the focused discussion in which effective teachers encouraged children as young as five to explain their thinking.
The project found that almost all the teachers in the study were using similar methods: mental tests and written exercises to practise skills, whole-class question-and-answer sessions and individual and group work. Setting across age groups and the same published mathematics schemes were being used by both effective and less effective teachers.
But the most effective teachers believed all children could become numerate and should be challenged by their work. They recognised the value of helping children to develop mental strategies. The lowest gains in numeracy were achieved by teachers who dealt with different areas of maths separately, and used assessment mainly as a check that taught methods had been learned rather than as a means of informing subsequent teaching.
"Effective teachers of numeracy in primary schools: teachers' beliefs, practices and pupils' learning" by Mike Askew, Margaret Brown, Valerie Rhodes, Dylan William and David Johnson, King's College, University of London.
Letter, page 27.