Carry on up maths ladder

17th December 2004 at 00:00
Mathematics in primary schools has made great strides in the past 10 years, but we are only halfway there, write Anita Straker and Tim Coulson

It is now almost a decade since a major international study highlighted serious shortcomings in maths in England's primary schools. The 1995 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey showed that maths test scores for 10-year-olds in England fell below the international average and was, therefore, far from world class.

The survey proved a watershed. The national numeracy project was launched the following year, followed by the numeracy strategy in 1999. The launch of the strategy was notable for newspaper headlines reporting the banning of calculators. But the real story was that, for the first time, primary schools had access to a framework of teaching objectives for each year group that set out a clear progression across the maths curriculum. This framework, together with the national programme of support materials and training, meant that teachers refocused their teaching of maths and children had a daily maths lesson.

Each year since 1997, the Office for Standards in Education has reported on the impact of the numeracy project, the numeracy strategy and now its successor, the primary strategy. These reports reveal considerable improvement in maths teaching and attention by schools to the strategy's guidance.

The latest Timss study (News, page 7) reveals that the mathematical attainment of England's Year 5 pupils has risen well above the international average, and is only a little behind the highest-performing countries in the world. The improvement is by far the biggest rise for any country for the period 1995 to 2003. The gains were across the attainment range.

The rise is interesting when compared with the performance of 10-year-olds in Scotland. In 1995, there was little to distinguish England's performance from Scotland's. Scotland had no equivalent of the numeracy strategy and its reported position in 2003 is much the same as it was in 1995.

The job of raising attainment in maths in primary schools has been done very well by schools, but is only half done. Where is the further progress to come from? Schools know that it is now much harder to achieve gains in national test results. The better you do, the more difficult it is to move forward. Progress is also harder because many of the issues that the numeracy strategy set out to tackle remain unresolved. We still need to help primary teachers to develop a deeper understanding of the maths they teach so they can raise their expectations of children.

Primary children still have difficulties with calculation methods, particularly compact written methods, and applying their understanding to problems, in particular, those that require understanding of multiplication, division and proportional reasoning.

And some issues have changed. In 1996, the issue was whether children should use calculators. Now we have interactive whiteboards in nearly half our classrooms with a calculator embedded in the software. Primary schools, and individual teachers, have done exceedingly well to raise attainment in maths so significantly. The support given by local education authorities and higher education institutions for the training of teachers has been considerable. But the job is incomplete. Schools appear still to be ambitious for further improvement - whilst in 2004, 74 per cent achieved level 4 in maths at 11, the aggregate of all schools' targets for 2005 is that 80 per cent should do so.

The Government's targets are that 85 per cent should achieve level 4 in English and maths and that many fewer schools have less than 65 per cent achieve level 4. Both targets are substantially more demanding in maths than English.

So how are primary schools to be helped to provide maths education on a par with the best in the world? The new national centre recommended by Adrian Smith in his inquiry into post-14 maths will focus mainly on teachers in secondary schools and colleges. Some assistance will come from programmes such as the intensifying support programme where relatively lower-achieving schools get help to achieve in line with broadly comparable schools, and the primary leadership programme. But these are not specifically designed to improve teachers' subject knowledge or their ability to teach mathematical topics such as proportional reasoning.

How can we unlock the doors to further improvements? We propose three ways: First, teachers should have access to a radical, sustained programme of professional development in primary maths, to focus on the skills needed to teach the subject, and to include a significant element on how to use information and communications technology to enhance mathematical learning.

Second, the framework for teaching maths from reception to Year 6 should be reviewed, to ensure that its aspirations are adjusted to take account of progress over time, and that more attention is given to the issues that remain unresolved.

Third, the revised framework should be launched through the primary strategy's learning networks and HE institutions, with the aim of making mathematical expertise widely available to primary teachers, to ensure a thorough understanding of the framework's contents and how best to use them in individual schools.

Such a programme will, we believe, help to complete the transformation in primary maths education that teachers have been working so hard to achieve.

Anita Straker directed the national numeracy strategy, and before that the national numeracy project, from 1996 until 2000. She now works as a principal consultant for CfBT. Tim Coulson has directed the national numeracy strategy since 2001. He is currently responsible for maths in the national primary strategy

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