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Success with numbers all in the mind

British children should learn to count in their heads before they tackle formal paper-and-pencil maths, says this weeks preliminary report from the Government's numeracy task force.

The influential group of academics and teachers believes pupils need a much stronger emphasis on mental arithmetic, including times tables and number games. They also want more class discussion and whole-class teaching.

But there will be no return to 1950s methods, says the group responsible for developing a national strategy. Chairman, Professor David Reynolds, said he was "exasperated" by headlines promising Victorian teaching.

There is more official concern about maths than any other curriculum subject in Britain. In a major international study, published last summer, 14-year-olds from England and Wales came only tenth out of 17 comparable countries.

The Government has promised that 75 per cent of 11-year-olds will be reaching the appropriate standard for their age in national curriculum tests, level 4, by the year 2002. It has also promised that all pupils would be at this level by the end of a second term in office, 2007.

Figures from last summer's tests show that 62 per cent are meeting the standard. The report steers schools away from concentrating on the middle- ranking achievers those within easy range of this target. Schools will be obliged to publish figures on pupils who are struggling.

Professor Reynolds, from Newcastle University, said the report was "a watershed in maths education" because of the consensus it achieves. Its members include academics from liberal and conservative wings of maths opinion. Many of the recommendations match those of the Governments literacy task force, which were published in the autumn.

There will be a national maths strategy, costing about #163;50 million; numeracy training for heads, governors and teachers; summer schools in maths; a national year of mathematics in 2000; and a numeracy hour in schools.

The report gives teachers a surprising autonomy. It acknowledges that different pupils in different settings, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, need different sorts of teaching. The document has been released for consultation with a final report due before the summer holiday. The strategy would be implemented from 1999.

The National Association of Head Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers warned it would create more unwanted bureaucracy.

There is evidence that the approach is already popular with teachers and schools, says the report, as the National Numeracy project is getting 100 calls a day asking for help and materials.

The task force recommends:

* Training for heads, governors and maths co-ordinators; * A daily maths lesson of between 45 and 60 minutes; * Training for primary teachers on methods including: oral and mental work; devoting more time to interacting with pupils; understanding different types of classroom organisation; detailed lesson planning; assessing pupils progress; * An action plan to raise standards of numeracy developed by each primary school, including targets for improvement and staff development; * Greater emphasis on oral and mental work in the national curriculum; * Involvement in UNESCO's World Mathematical Year 2000, creating a national climate in which maths is seen as enjoyable; * Summer numeracy schools and exploration of ways in which secondary schools can build on primary work; * Homework guidelines for parents; * Measures to ensure that education bodies emphasise numeracy; * Research on innovative maths programmes already in place.

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