A pound;400m failure

9th May 2003 at 01:00
The national numeracy strategy has made very little difference to pupil attainment, research shows

THE flagship government programme to transform maths teaching in primary schools has done little to raise standards despite costing pound;400 million, research has revealed.

Nine-year-olds who had worked with the national numeracy strategy for two years were on average only two months ahead of those taught before its introduction, researchers at King's College, London, found. The scores of the least able were actually worse.

Embarrassingly for ministers, pupils' grasp of multiplication and division declined. Former education secretary David Blunkett had claimed that the strategy would "ensure that children know their times tables".

And gains in national curriculum maths tests are the result not of the strategy but of teachers teaching to the test, the researchers said.

The findings, part of a pound;1m, five-year study funded by the Leverhulme Trust, will fuel growing doubts about whether test results mean that children's reading and maths are really improving.

Another new study from Oxford Brookes University shows that, despite the rise in 11-year-olds' national test scores, reading and reasoning tests set by the National Foundation for Educational Research suggest that standards remain unchanged.

For the King's College Leverhulme study, 1,291 pupils across England in Year 4 were given an independently-designed 75-question test in October 1997 and again in June 1998, before the strategy was introduced in 1999.

The same test was set for a fresh cohort of 1,332 Year 4 pupils in October 2001 and June 2002.

The researchers observed only "very minor" improvements. In October 2001, the proportion of right answers was 54.7 per cent, against 51.8 in October, 1997.

In June 2002, when pupils had had an extra eight months' schooling, the figure had risen to 64.8, compared to 61.6 in 1998.

The study, which included interviews with pupils and teachers, also found:

* The 2002 cohort was better at addition and subtraction.

* Boys increased their lead over girls.

* Children of white European, Chinese and Indian descent were on average one year ahead of African-Caribbean pupils.

* Teachers were "overwhelmingly positive" about the strategy.

The researchers said that a 14 percentage point increase in national maths test results from 1998 to 2002 was down mainly to teachers teaching to the test.

The research was presented to the American Educational Research Association last month and will feature in the British Educational Research Journal.

Professor Margaret Brown, who led the study, told the association: "The Government has repeatedly stated that the national numeracy strategy has been a great success.

"Yet if changes for other year groups are of a similar size to these, whether such a small change in numeracy attainment is worth the expenditure must be open to doubt.

"A major attempt at systemic change has had at most a small effect on attainment on most areas of numeracy."

In response the Government cited an Office for Standards in Education report last November which said the strategy had had a significant impact on standards and teaching quality and had boosted pupils' confidence in maths.

Dr Tim Coulson, the strategy's director, said: "It is complete nonsense to suggest that the national numeracy strategy has not been effective." He said the percentage increase of children meeting the expected level at 11 had shot up from 59 per cent in 1998 to 73 per cent in 2002.

The Oxford Brookes study of more than 5,000 pupils between 1998 and 2001 compared their results in English, maths and science national tests with those in standardised NFER tests taken soon after they began secondary school.

The NFER tests showed no change in pupils' achievements during that time.

Professor Rosemary Davis and Dr David Rolfe Hopkins suggested that the reasons might be teaching to the test, easier tests in Year 6 or an improvement which did not show up in the Year 7 tests.

Leader, 23

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