Calculated to produce the right results

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Bill Laar assesses the possibilities of the fledgling National Numeracy Project.

The National Numeracy Project is making an audacious attempt to guarantee that an exactly defined and comprehensive "basic" curriculum will be taught to all primary children.

The first half of its syllabus, for Years 1-3, was published this month and is now being used in about 200 schools. Along with the National Literacy Project's programme - still officially unpublished, but leaked to The TES last term - it deserves to be preserved as a glowing example of "the Cutting the Gordian Knot School of Educational Change and Development".

Both discard the elaborate rituals, the complicated negotiations, the "ownership" overtures, the prolonged considerations of contending alternatives long deemed inseparable from successful innovation. They substitute instead minutely detailed, mandatory content and finely prescribed management structures, methodology and pedagogy, along with standardised systems for evaluating pupils' progress and teacher effectiveness.

To those who thought this process had reached its pinnacle with the Literacy Project one can only say that until they have read the details of the Numeracy Project, "they ain't seen nuthin' yet!" The Numeracy Project was launched to raise standards to meet the national curriculum's expectations. Influenced by research and inspection evidence pinpointing unsatisfactory teaching, inefficient use of time, and failure to achieve an appropriate balance between whole class, group and individual work , the Project could not be clearer in its ideas about numeracy and the measures needed to improve it.

Project director Anita Straker emphasises that numeracy is much more than knowing about numbers and being able to solve problems.

Mrs Straker treats it with a mixture of the pragmatic and the idealistic, proclaiming on the one hand the need for children to be intrigued and engaged by mathematics, while remaining adamant about the need to combat the "long tail of under-achievement".

Skilled, confident teachers are crucial to achieving these aims, she says. The Project is designed not only to support teachers but to bring about changes in schools' way of working.

At the heart of the process is the Framework of Objectives, designed to translate the broad imperatives of the national curriculum into detailed classroom activities. The Framework, comprises three strands: Knowledge of numbers and the number system; Calculations; and Making sense of numerical problems.

Detailed guidance is provided to help teachers plan the implementation of the Framework for each year group. A planning grid shows the broad areas to be taught in 12 weekly units, designed to ensure appropriate balance and distribution of work across each term. A sheet summarising the range of work for the year shows the broad area for each strand, with a list of objectives under each. It is all cross referenced to the relevant pages of the Framework.

In effect, nothing is left to chance. Teachers have the clearest indication of what each child should be able to do in each year and how they must be enabled to do so.

Each teacher is guided by a termly plan of main teaching activities, by a detailed summary of objectives, and by examples of what pupils should be able to do in relation to the objectives.

This all-encompassing detail provides grounds to justify the claim levelled at the Literacy Project by Professor Kathy Hall (TES January 3) of a teacher-proof curriculum. In fact, this is where the two projects differ; the Literacy Project defines objectives in ordered, progression-orientated fashion, but leaves schools to create teaching activities.

The numeracy framework also prescribes teaching methods. Each class taking part must devote at least four 45 to 50 minute lessons each week exclusively to numeracy. Such organisation will ensure common patterns and routines for pupils, maximising teaching time and minimising management time. The basic structure of the lesson will be the same for all classes so that pupils meet a similar and predictable way of working as they move from class to class, and teachers have a common structure within which to develop ideas and share planning.

The prescription also provides for a balance between class and group teaching, with teachers expected to spend close to 100 per cent of their time in direct teaching of the whole class or groups.

Ability groups, preferably of four, will allow for "a comfortable, manageable, degree of differentiation". However, the overwhelming aim is to ensure good progress in the class as a whole, while "preventing a wide gap forming between the least and most able". Most remarkably, "each new unit needs to be started with the whole class".

The provision for school audits and pupil testing leave few stones unturned either. An exhaustive audit process, baseline testing and follow-up standardised testing of pupils is designed to enable the evaluation of the project's effectiveness, of pupil progress, and the success and efficiency of teaching.

To the sceptical it will seem that, from a teacher's point of view, little is left that a well drilled automaton could not do; indeed, it may be felt that here we have the "lack of trust in teachers' professionalism and in the ability of schools to make their own informed decisions about teaching methods" alleged by Professor Hall about the literacy project (though the intensive and enlightened training programme, designed to enhance teachers' competence and enlarge their understanding might belie that).

The Numeracy Project proposals may jar less than the literacy plans, simply because the topic is not so sacrosanct for teachers as reading. But the degree of imposition, the cast iron nature of its assumptions, including the unabashed acceptance that under-achievement in the past is attributable to teachers' lack of knowledge and competence, the pressure it will create for success, and the intense evaluation proposed may make it unpalatable to many. Nor, for all its authority and meticulous planning, is it altogether free of ambiguity. The notion of a mixed ability class being maintained at broadly a similar stage of attainment and progression leaves large questions unresolved about differentiation.

There will be concern because children (and teachers) starting the programme in the juniors will have to catch up and "relearn" critical skills they have not acquired before.

Whatever the reservations, I believe the project will represent a landmark in primary curriculum development, planning and implementation. It may be the nearest we shall come to a fool-proof curriculum. I have no doubt that implemented as intended it will lead to enormously enhanced attainment and understanding on the part of children and increased competence for teachers.

*Learning to Double check

The framework shows progression in a range of skills, such as "checking that results of calculations are reasonable". This is what children should learn to do:

Year 1

* Check with the inverse operation

* Repeat addition in a different order

Year 2

* Check with the inverse operation

* Repeat + or x in a different order

* Check with an equivalent calculation

* Check the effect of an operation

* Approximate by rounding to the nearest 10

Year 3

* Check with the inverse operation

* Repeat + or x in a different order

* Check with an equivalent calculation

* Check the effect of an operation

* Use tests of divisibility by 100, 10, 5 or 2

* Approximate by rounding to nearest 10

* Use knowledge of sums of oddeven numbers

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