Charming problems

11th May 2001 at 01:00
Maths Challenges may be the test some pupils are looking for. Carolyn O'Grady reports.

If entries for the United Kingdom Mathematics Trust (UKMT) Maths Challenges are anything to go by, there are thousands of children willing to tax their minds in extra maths tests every year, and the number is growing. Last year 1,273 schools entered candidates for the 2000 Senior Maths Challenge, an increase of 26 per cent over 1999.

The UKMT also organises a Junior Challenge and an Intermediate Challenge, and high scorers are invited to participate in further rounds, including the Junior Olympiad, the British Mathematical Olympiad and the crowning event for mathematical aces, the International Olympiad, to be held in July this year in Washington DC.

Established in 1996, the UKMT is an independent charitable organisation whose main aim is to advance the education of children and young people in maths.

"Challenging, but charming," is how chairman Dr Peter Neumann describes the kind of problems presented. They were tests of reasoning and logic, designed to make pupils think without being overly technical. The questions are set so that all participating pupils should be able to do the first 15 of them, while the remaining 10 are more testing. They are taken under external exam conditions in each school that enters, and consist of a 60-minute paper with multiple-choice questions; in the Olympiad competitionsstudents are also required to explain their arguments. "The Challenges boost confidence in maths skills, make maths more fun and raise the profile of the maths department," says James O'Toole, principal maths teacher at Woodfarm high school in Glasgow. He puts 30 to 40 per cent of pupils in for the Challenges.

"We're often quite surprised by who is successful," he says. "It's not always the children you would expect. Some pupils shine in the Challenges who don't do well in other maths exams." It may be because they find it "a user- friendly" way of doing maths.

"We always mention it in pupils' school reports and encourage them to mention it in their records of achievement - it shows they are taking an interest in the subject," he says.

Peter Ransom, a maths teacher at The Mountbatten School, a Hampshire comprehensive, also finds that "those who get certificates don't necessarily do well in traditional exams, so it means that another group are motivated". He thinks that it has something to do with the fact that "nobody is asking to see any workings out and they can compete with others on a more equal footing.

"We put in a lot of children to give them experience and the head hands out the certificates in assembly when the results come through," he says. "We make a big thing of it."

Maths Challenges, tel: 0113 233 2339.

Websites: www.mathscomp.leeds.ac.uk www.ukmt.org.uk


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