The best laid schemes;Reviews;Numeracy

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Linton Waters and the Shropshire Numeracy Team look at four schemes to see how well they reflect the spirit of the National Strategy and the content of the Framework.

It's not surprising that the launch of the National Numeracy Strategy has been accompanied by the biggest flurry of maths scheme publishing for years. But schools will need to ask some searching questions before they rush out to order new books.

First, why buy a scheme? In the past, teachers who adopted commercial schemes, usually did so for two reasons. They provided a scheme of work which ensured a breadth of curriculum coverage and, in the better cases, some broad sense of progression. And they offered a range of resources including activities for pupils in class.

The first reason is now redundant. The Framework for Teaching Mathematics, which should be in the hands of every primary teacher, not only spells out in detail what pupils should be taught at each stage in primary school maths, but it incorporates an efficient planning model which allows every teacher to match their teaching objectives to the needs of their pupils simply and accurately. There is now no need to rely on somebody else guessing what is appropriate for your class at any given stage.

Ask what, if anything, you may need to supplement existing resources. Materials that have proved useful in teaching and reinforcing subtraction, for example, will remain valid.

On the other hand, if the emphasis on developing mental calculation strategies reveals a need for more puzzles, games and equipment, make these your priority.

* OXFORD MATHS ZONE: Oxford University Press. Tel: 01865 267241. Lesson Plans with homework and copymasters. Big Book. Shared Activity Book. Recording Book. Software. Materials for Year 1 Term 1 due September. Similar materials for later terms and for reception and Year 2 to follow. Materials for key stage 2 published from 2000.

The pupil's materials are generally bright and lively, but the exercises in the recording book are very familiar and should be used judiciously. We liked the shared activity book, which provides a range of coloured resources for paired work, some in simple game format, although some of the pages are unnecessarily busy. The Big Books link neatly with the literacy hour and will offer a useful strategy for gaining interest and focusing whole class discussions. Overall, however, these pupils' materials offer little new to key stage 1 teachers.

So what about support for teachers, particularly in planning within the strategy? As with most of the new schemes, the authors provide daily lesson plans. These are not lists of ideas from which teachers might select for their own needs. Instead, bizarrely, they purport to be detailed daily plans aimed at your class. As such, they fly in the face of the whole planning principle at the heart of the Strategy - that is, that teachers' medium and short term planning unfolds progressively as the needs of their pupils become apparent.

Could teachers make fruitful use of the lesson plans? The plan booklet provides a list of about 30 different mental and oral activities which can be adapted to many different contexts. These are brought together into a progressive scheme within the daily plans which many teachers may find helpful.

The plans for the main part of the lesson do link activities to specific objectives, and all the resources are internally cross-referenced, so if you find an appropriate focus for some or all of your class, using the ideas is relatively straightforward. But there is a real danger that the daily plans will feel more like a straightjacket than a professional aid.

Finally, the record-keeping system is poorly designed, doesn't relate to the key objectives, and fails to recognise the value of linking assessment directly to planning next steps. On balance, this is a disappointing start. The test of usefulness will lie in the quality and adaptability of future pupil materials.

* COLLINS PRIMARY MATHS: Collins Educational Tel: 0870 0100 441. Teacher's Guide. Workbooks. Copymasters. Games packs. Software. Year 1 materials out now; Year 2 from September, Years 3 - 6 to follow.

The pupil's workbook for Year 1 is colourful and elaborately illustrated, but provides little that is new. The layout is sometimes confusing and suggests the pages might have benefited from more classroom trials. Activities link to the objectives of the lesson plans, but there is little to challenge more capable children.

The teacher's guide is a hefty tome, running to 480 pages for Year 1, reinforcing the notion that the teacher is the key resource in the mathematics lesson. It confirms the scheme's aims to offer complete coverage of the yearly teaching programmes as structured in the Framework, a straightforward yet flexible approach to interactive whole-class teaching and a systematic approach to the development of mental strategies. It also discusses the importance of teachers' continuing assessment determining their medium and short-term plans. Various assessment and recording sheets are provided to aid this.

However, the bulk of the guide is then taken up by detailed daily lesson plans which appear to be designed to circumvent that process.

Admittedly, the authors suggest that the plans should be taken as a model and adapted, re-ordered and extended to meet particular class needs, and their format makes this easier to achieve than with some other schemes.

For example, a sequence of daily mental and oral activities is presented separately, with activities linked to specific objectives rather than to particular lessons, making it easier for teachers to select ideas suited to their class.

Suggestions for extra support for pupils who are falling behind, and extensions for the more able, are clearly identified. As well as promoting differentiation within the class, these could support teachers in deciding whether it might be necessary to re-pitch the whole lesson for their pupils.

On the other hand, the very detailed and sometimes rather patronising instructions to the teacher "Say: 'The difference between six and two is four. Two is four more than six.' Write and say: '6 - 4 = 2'" reinforces a model in which the teacher is dependent on the scheme rather than helped by it.

It is a shame the scheme's commendable aims are not followed through, but used skilfully, the teacher's guide will provide some useful ideas.

* FOLENS MATHS PROGRAMME: Folens Publishing. Tel: 01582 472788. Lesson Plans. Rapid Recall Tests. Weekly Assessments. Materials for term 1 of Years 1 - 6 out now; later terms due from December.

Folens Maths Programme is based around loose leaf files for Years 1-6, containing daily lesson plans and activity sheet copymasters.The publishers claim that the materials "exactly meet the requirements of the numeracy strategy", but in many respects they appear to work exactly counter to the strategy guidance. In particular, the strategy's model of continuous assessments feeding directly into the next stage of planning would be very difficult to accommodate, since the assessment records appear unrelated to the medium and short-term plans.

The lesson plans specify a mental and oral starter, the main activity and tasks for pupils working at higher and lower levels than most of the class. The guidance on the plenary is generally weak (it does not attempt to anticipate misconceptions or how they might be addressed, for example) but there are helpful suggestions for things pupils can think about and do, possibly at home, after each lesson. The loose leaf format is helpful, but the plans are not designed to encourage adaptation.

How well do the materials stand up if used as a more flexible resource to support teachers' own planning? The ideas for activities based around specific objectives are easy to locate. Suggestions for mental and oral starters are generally linked to, and would sometimes be better used as, introductions to the main part of the lesson.

The pupils' materials lack the colourful presentation of other schemes' work books, but the photocopiable sheets may prove cheaper to use. Some of the closed tasks are of questionable quality - in a section on real life problem-solving pupils can buy a full breakfast for 29p! - but the puzzle sheets are generally better.

The books of recall tests, with questions to be read out by the teacher and photocopiable answer sheets, are much as one would expect and will occasionally prove useful, particularly for older pupils practising for national curriculum mental tests.

The weekly assessment files are not yet available for review, but appear to expect detailed assessments for each individual pupil against a page of criteria every week. This is not in line with the national strategy and unnecessarily burdensome on teachers' time. It would also produce records of questionable usefulness. At pound;14.95 per file, they are expensive.

Overall, this scheme is not going to help many teachers plan in the way promoted by the strategy. Before it can be recommended, it will need more flare in the teaching materials.

CONNECT: NELSON NUMERACY SOLUTIONS: Nelson. Tel: 01264 342 992. Let's Talk Maths. Tell Me Why. Activity Mats. Maths Centres. Partner Games. Daily Warm-ups. Maths Challenges.

Unlike the other schemes reviewed here, there are no daily lesson plans; instead the resources have been cross-referenced to the Framework so that teachers can adapt them to fit their own plans.

This is a strength of the materials, some of which are revisions of previous publications, while some are newly written in response to the National Numeracy Strategy.

Let's Talk Maths are new, colourful, double-sided posters designed to encourage discussion and counting with groups of nursery and reception children. There is also a teacher's book with suggested questions which might help inexperienced teachers.

Tell Me Why are new A2 posters for infant classes. Again there are suggested questions, although these are not well linked to the Framework objectives.

Activity Mats and Maths Challenges will be familiar to many. The former are double-sided cards with activities for individuals, pairs or small groups.

These could form a useful component within the main part of a lesson, but many would need adult supervision. The Challenges photocopiable worksheets generally lack inspiration, but could be used in class or at home.

Partner Games are another revised component. They have some good ideas for paired, reinforcement activities, many of which could usefully be adapted and extended if given a little thought by teachers.

New Daily Warm Ups, as the name suggests, are intended to help teachers with activities and approaches to the mental and oral starter in each lesson. The activities are reasonably broad ranging and the approach to mental calculation is in line with the strategy.

Finally, the Maths Centres provide activities to reinforce ideas in the main part of the lesson. They are grouped by topics and include teacher's notes and copiable pupils' sheets. Although they include suggestions for plenaries, they are rather dull. A particular disappointment is with the extension activities which often fail to extend pupils' mathematical thinking.

Overall, the range of materials means there may be particular elements worth considering to supplement existing resources.

Linton Waters is numeracy manager for Shropshire

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