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Strength in number

Young executives are keen to help pupils with their maths, writes Susannah Kirkman

Number Partners is an imaginative volunteer scheme that boosts pupils' numeracy skills and adds a feel-good factor to the working lives of employees from high-powered companies such as Unilever, HSBC and Watson Wyatt. "When you're walking back to the office after working with the pupils, you feel positive and happy," says Susie Thomas, the PR manager for QAS Systems, an IT software company that is one of the largest employers in Clapham, south London.

Every Tuesday lunchtime, Susie plus nine other volunteers from the company, play number games with small groups of pupils at Wix primary school.

"You build up a relationship with the children and see the progress they're making," says Helen Clift, a product manager at QAS. "You do get a sense of satisfaction and it's a chance to get involved with the community you work in." A recent evaluation found that nearly all the volunteers enjoyed it and said they felt good about doing something worthwhile for their community.

"I have noticed a strong need among people in their twenties and thirties to put something back into society," says Tuula Ball , who works for Best, the Wandsworth education-business Partnership that matches companies with schools. Most company co-ordinators report that the programme had a positive impact on the internal and external reputation of the firm.

Among the knock-on effects is stronger links between schools and local companies. Some volunteers become school governors, while executives may join a Partners in Leadership scheme to work with school managers. Staff from QAS now attend carol services and school plays at Wix primary and the firm has donated money towards the school's healthy eating programme.

Teachers are also impressed with Number Partners. "The children are almost fighting for places on the programme; they are extremely enthusiastic, which is excellent as numeracy can be very daunting for some of them," says Caroline Andrews, who organises the scheme at Wix. "There's quite a relaxed atmosphere. They enjoy contact with adults who are not teachers and their basic number skills have really improved."

Of the 240 primary and secondary schools involved across the UK, around 40 per cent have reported an improvement in competence and confidence of their pupils in handling numbers. School co-ordinators report a growth in pupils'

self-confidence and motivation, both crucial elements in mathematical progress.

"For the first time, these kids experienced success and had positive associations with maths," said a class teacher from a primary school in Islington, north London.

The games seem to make maths enjoyable. According to a Leeds head: "It is a great way to make maths fun whilst developing numerical skills.'

In the Savings Game, students have to accumulate a sum of money to make a large purchase. They must decide where to hold the money - internet savings account, bank or building society - and weigh up issues such as interest rates and accessibility, security and risk.

Another favourite is Wubble, which is similar to Countdown. Pupils roll four dice to make as large a number as possible up to 100. If they achieve their target, players receive pretend money.

Web Wheeler Dealer is a virtual online auction game, like e-Bay. Pupils can collect items such as cards or CDs in sets; the more they collect, the greater the value. They can then market their collections directly to other players or advertise them on an imaginary internet site.

However, participation in the project does not automatically bring greater insight into business. Only 28 per cent of school co-ordinators felt that involvement gave pupils a positive insight into business, while just 11 per cent of volunteers believed that the scheme increased pupils' knowledge of the world of work.

Number Partners is now planning to explore how the programme fits in to the work of education-business partnerships and to consider how pupils can gain more insight into commerce.

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