Anyone preparing for the numeracy hour from September should feel encouraged by early results from the National Numeracy Project this week (page 6). Though many of the schools involved were in disadvantaged urban areas, and project schools have twice the national average of pupils entitled to free meals, progress on national tests was significantly better than average in all 12 pilot authorities. On standardised numeracy tests Year 4 pupils on average performed 12 to 16 months ahead of the Year 4 results recorded before the project began.
Mental arithmetic particularly improved; boys caught up with girls; ethnic minorities also began to narrow gaps; and pupils with special needs made significant gains compared with those not in the project. And it is not just test results. HM Inspectors report significant improvements in teachers' expectations, confidence and competence in maths teaching and in pupil motivation.
Though these interim results are unlikely to dispel all reservations about the National Numeracy Strategy, there is little in them to sustain the critics. The concern that concentration on mental and written calculation would reduce scores on practical problem-solving or other areas of mathematics does not seem to be borne out. Improvement in computational skills has not apparently been at the expense of broad maths attainment - if the national tests are a valid measure of the curriculum.
The OFSTED evaluation blames "deep-seated weaknesses in leadership, management and the quality of teaching" for the "small but significant minority" of schools where the project has apparently not had the desired effect. Almost one head in 10 failed to support efforts to improve numeracy teaching in his or her school, and the report clearly puts local authorities on notice to be ready to intervene where the wider National Numeracy Strategy falters for similar reasons.
The report acknowledges that teacher turnover and recruitment difficulties reduced consistency in some pilot schools. It does not say how many of the "significant minority" was affected in this way, or examine any link between this and "weak management". But recruitment and retention are also bound to be a significant factor in achieving the Government's numeracy goals. These too may require some intervention.