A calculated strategy

12th December 1997 at 00:00
Elaine Williams assesses the resources of a primary school whose maths lessons have strong links with the Government's numeracy task force

Maths lessons are a whole-school affair at Asmall county primary in Ormskirk, Lancashire.

For four one-hour sessions every week, all 130 of the school's children work through a diet of mental arithmetic, followed by group activities and ending with a plenary session. During this hour, the small open-plan primary bustles with children threading, counting cubes and arranging shapes (reception); working through simple addition and subtraction (Year 1); looking at the value of money, and playing money games such as Five Pence Lotto and Jumble Sale; counting in units of ones and tens (Years 3 and 4); measuring and estimating weights in grams (Years 4 and 5); and sitting a diagnostic test in equivalent fractions (Years 5 and 6).

Children are grouped by ability rather than age, and because all staff teach maths at the same time, pupils can progress at their own pace. In particular, it allows able children to move through the groups as swiftly as necessary, so that a mathematically bright pupil in Year 4 could quite easily be working with older pupils. Although most pupils are in groups of around 12, less able pupils - some with special needs and statements - work in twos and threes. The school is well-staffed because of its special educational resource facility: there are five class and three support teachers. Extra staff are bought in for able children who need to work beyond Year 6 levels.

Anne Waterhouse, Asmall's headteacher and a member of the Government's literacy and numeracy task forces, says the school undertook a major review of its maths strategies four years ago after introducing National Foundation for Educational Research diagnostic testing for all pupils.

"We were concerned at how far below the norm our children were. And it wasn't because we weren't teaching the subject - it was how we were teaching that was the problem. It made us question our strategies. As teachers we seemed to be pulling ourselves in too many different directions. So we decided to approach it in a much more co-ordinated way. We introduced whole-school maths periods so the children could move to the staff teaching at the appropriate level.

"We also decided to start every session with mental arithmetic - long before it became fashionable - and we always try and ask the children how they got to the answer. We still have a long way to go but we hope that you can put our children in any situation, present them with a problem and that they will try and solve it without getting hung up on any one method."

Mrs Waterhouse also says that staff now have much higher expectations of what children can achieve and that this is paying off in results.

Teachers use a range of resources - "whatever is appropriate for the child". Although the school uses the Maths Quest (Schofield Sims) scheme as their framework because of its practical bias, staff supplement it with other publications such as Cambridge Primary Mathematics; Mathematics for Schools (Addison Wesley); Collins HBJ Mathematics; Collins Basic Mathematics and Calculated to Please (Collins).

Gillian Boyle, who takes the top set for Years 5 and 6 and who also uses the Collins Basic Mathematics, says: "It's less interesting, but it is useful as a guide to know what kids should be doing at a certain level. For example, I've been doing equivalent fractions with Year 5, but Maths Quest doesn't touch them until level seven (the top end of Year 6). I don't think it pushes the children on fast enough."

Teachers can also select from Ginn Investigations; a generous selection of logic and probability materials such as The Logic People (E J Arnold); and resources such as Multilink (NES Arnold) and Unifix (Philograph Publications). They also have access to software such as My World for the infants, a cross-curricular programme that provides number, measuring and shape-sorting activities.

All materials are kept in a special maths area along with work sheets, which many of the staff have devised themselves. These are all kept up-to-date and in order by volunteer parents and an associate member of staff whose primary role is to administer special needs.

During regular Tuesday night in-service sessions, staff are made aware of all the materials on offer, the functions they serve and how they fit in with the national curriculum. There are also courses for parents.

"Parents felt they needed support with maths," says Mrs Waterhouse, "and we are trying hard to change children's attitudes to the subject - for them to feel positive and confident about it." Although the head was once against the introduction of homework for primary children, believing they needed time for social activities after a hard day at school, she has introduced "structured" homework in maths using Ruth Merttens's Impact (Parents and Children Together) materials, a series of practical activities published by Scholastic.

"We didn't feel it was satisfactory to send children home simply with pages of sums," she says. "If they get them all right, then they're probably too easy, and if they get them wrong, it reinforces errors, which makes it harder for us to help them. We want to give our children the confidence to work things out." Pupils are also introduced to a specific maths vocabulary, learning from the beginning to use words like subtraction and estimate.

Mrs Waterhouse believes that, like many primary teachers, she lacks confidence in maths. "I didn't want children leaving here feeling the way I do about maths. I am really proud that I have steered the school to changing children's attitudes. They are confident about maths, they know what they are doing and how to go about things. That is a real achievement."

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