Better maths by halves

28th April 1995 at 01:00
Sir Ron Dearing's new Orders may be slimmer but they still demand depth and breadth in nine subjects. So what makes a good primary subject teacher? Gerald Haigh and Susan Thomas visit maths, PE and history co-ordinators to find out.

Being a key stage 2 core subject co-ordinator is a demanding task. Perhaps in the end no one can do it properly, given that he or she usually has to be a full-time class teacher as well. One solution, adopted at the 300-pupil Down Lane junior school in the outer-London borough of Haringey, is to split the job into two equal areas of responsibility. Kerry Carter is nominally maths co-ordinator in the upper school, while Ellika McAuley looks after years 3 and 4 - although, as Ellika pointed out: "The split's not that rigid. Whoever is available will answer a query or take part in a staffroom discussion." Kerry agreed: "There are two people they can go and ask - it splits the load. "

The two quite evidently make a good team - their differ-ent professional backgrounds providing complementary perspectives. Ellika, now in her fourth year of teaching, did a psychology degree followed by a PGCE. Her interest in maths comes from a desire to build a fulfilling career rather than from a particular commitment to the subject. "This job has really been professional development for me - it didn't have to be maths."

Significantly, though, she did maths at A-level, and acknowledges that this background is very helpful to her classroom work. "I like spotting patterns, and I like putting that across."

Kerry Carter, American by birth, has taught for five years. He did a teaching degree in the States, specialising in maths - "although nothing quite as specific as primary school maths". After some time in a Peterborough school, he came to Down Lane and took on the maths co-ordinator post.

The first major task on taking up the shared post last year was to choose a new scheme. In the primary school, maths more than any other subject is likely to be based on a published scheme. Equipping a school with the whole range of scheme books and resources is expensive, and the choice has to be made carefully and with particular regard to the school's philosophy. At Down Lane, the whole staff worked on the choice - though, as Ellika explained: "We led the process. They all wanted to be involved but they asked us what we thought. "

The first task was to draw up, at staff meetings, the criteria upon which the choice would be made. Ellika explains: "This process was useful in itself because it raised a number of issues to do with the teaching of maths."

The list of criteria makes revealing reading. There are 26 items. At the head is "Equal opportunities positive images" - perhaps not surprising in a multi-ethnic, city school, and yet it seems a shame that this aspect (as the two co-ordinators confirmed) still cannot be taken for granted in all published material.

Following down the page is a list of practical requirements: "clear presentation", "practical activities", "clear, simple and efficient recording for children and adults", and a "good teacher's guide."

Anything strike you as missing here? There it is, near the bottom in 20th place: "National curriculum-linked." Explains Ellika: "National curriculum links was not one of the most important things. We wanted to teach good maths - and we knew Dearing was on the way." Once the criteria were agreed, 10 schemes were brought in and evaluated by the staff in groups during a training day. They eventually chose Cambridge Primary Mathematics. An important feature of this scheme, suggests Kerry, is that it makes it easier to avoid having children working away - silently, individually and untaught - through their scheme books. With Cambridge, the whole class can be on the same topic in the same book. "It's difficult for the teacher to set pupils just to work through the book. It encourages her to do some teaching first."

Ellika added: "Able children get more abstract work within the same topic. "

Which was exactly the process I saw in both of these teachers' classrooms. Kerry's pupils, sitting in mixed-ability groups of four or five, were trying to find the formula that produced a given pattern of numbers. It absorbed the children and worked well at different levels. Down the corridor, Ellika had her year 3 children sitting on the carpet discussing halves and quarters, preparing for a practical activity from the scheme. Interestingly, while Ellika divides her class into ability groups, Kerry does not. The rationale for Kerry is that he does not want "an area in the room where there's not much work going on".

Ellika, though, feels that "With younger children it's literacy-determined. There are a lot of children who need help with basic language".

Neither feels that all of Down Lane's maths problems are now solved. The scheme is still settling down, and both Kerry and Ellika are going into staff and year-group meetings to discuss maths, and visiting classrooms on a swap basis in the limited way that this is possible in the primary sector. "We're having a maths working party during the summer to look at the whole school maths policy," says Kerry.

Down Lane's head Hilario Surtie has the right kind of missionary zeal for raising achievement in this area of unemployment and low morale. The school has spent some Pounds 7,000 on maths resources over the past two years, and he still has lots of plans, particularly for developing the school policy in areas such as mental arithmetic, assessment and pupil portfolios. Nevertheless, he is content to see things develop at a manageable pace: "It's a river that started as a stream. We've raised the importance of maths."

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