Coming up trumps
There was a time when playing cards during maths was a punishable offence.
Confiscation of the pack and a stern lecture about paying attention was the least you could expect. Now, all that is changing, with widespread recognition of the skills that bridge, in particular, can impart. It is taking root in the curriculum, seemingly able to fit in anywhere.
In some schools, a simplified form of the game, Minibridge, has become a tool for improving numeracy. "Better than doing maths," say Year 5s at Swanmore Middle School, Isle of Wight, for whom Friday morning sessions are a regular fixture. Yet they are becoming sharper at mental arithmetic, and Minibridge introduces problem-solving, probability and tactical awareness.
Alison Nicolson, the English Bridge Union education officer, has a missionary zeal. Last year alone, she got Minibridge going in around 500 state schools, from grammars to inner-city primaries. The EBU aims to introduce Minibridge andor bridge to 1,000 schools by 2008.
Bridge is associated with the middle classes, but Alison learned it as a working-class girl from Sheffield. She went to a tough primary school, but discovered the game through an uncle, and it helped shape her life. She later went on to study physics at university.
"Education was my passport to a better future," she says. "All the children I've met have benefited enormously from learning through play. Many seem deprived of positive adult attention and play opportunities."
Minibridge, like the real thing, involves four players, two against two.
All 52 cards are used, each player receiving 13. The objective is to win tricks - each player, in turn, plays a card: the highest card wins that trick for the pair who played it.
Alison spends much of her time teaching teachers. She also looks for outside help and plans to approach golf clubs, whose members tend to be of an age and social class which make them likely to be bridge players.
The game is being marketed to schools in north-west England by Mr Minibridge Ltd, a company that provides tuition services and organises team challenges and other events for participating schools.
The educational benefits can be startling. At Weelsby Primary School in Grimsby, where 10 children played Minibridge for a term, maths SATs marks increased by 35 per cent. The school is in a deprived area, and the project was an Educational Action Zone initiative.
The EBU wants to promote cards as a learning tool. It has proposed putting together a key stage 2 pack for use across the curriculum. The maths element, in addition to Minibridge, could entail turning up any two cards and multiplying them; seeing how many numbers can be made from two cards or three; devising a game to teach younger children.
As the nine to 10-year-olds of Swanmore fan out in groups of four, they're still mastering the rudiments. Later, they'll learn scoring, totting up points for numbers of tricks won in clubs and diamonds (20 each), and hearts and spades (30), as well as bonus scores.
"It's a better way of doing maths," says 10-year-old Mia Downing. "I didn't really play cards before but I picked it up quite quickly. It's fun; something different."
Daniel Turvey, also 10, is so taken with Minibridge he intends teaching his family. In a world where children spend solitary hours playing computer games, it is reviving sociability. "Minibridge gives them a chance to talk to their mates in class," says KS2 co-ordinator Angie Pay, who has joined the children in learning the basics.
In Manchester, Minibridge's stronghold, the game has had a remarkable effect. Four years ago, it was introduced to a range of schools in the south of the city. Research by educational psychologist Leah Burman at St Paul's C of E Primary, which is in a deprived area of the city, reported improved social skills and greater concentration among those playing.
Parents and teachers saw pupils grow more confident when speaking and develop a greater ability to listen, share and help a partner.
A key aspect is that Minibridge is a partnership game. Players must learn to co-operate, combine efforts and pool resources with their partner.
At St Paul's, the four pupils who showed the most improvement in learning Minibridge also made the most significant gains in maths and non-verbal reasoning tests. And there are signs that there may be benefits for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
The tutor at Swanmore is EBU member and former professional entertainer Dave Bessant. He teaches at five schools on the Isle of Wight, where Minibridge is part of the numeracy curriculum, and he has already observed a honing of skills.
"Some have really picked up on the maths side," he says. "We emphasise the mathematical content along the way. They have to work out what their hand is worth as soon as it's dealt and anticipate what's in the other hands."