sitting together on the carpet, a class of six and seven-year-olds at Four Dwellings Infant School in Birmingham is learning some new "tricks" for adding in their heads. "What I want you to learn today is how to become really good at spotting near doubles," explains Jenny Kerwin, numeracy project consultant, who is co-teaching the lesson.
She begins with quick-fire doubles questions - "What is double 20? 50? 200? 23? And tell me how you worked it out" - then moves on to near doubles such as 20+21 and 30+29. The children quickly get the hang of it, and go off into their groups to do more doubles and near doubles on paper. While the most able group tackles three-digit numbers, the less able work with dominoes, and the large middle group, a little noisily, plays a doubles game in teams. Clare Williams, the class teacher, spends about 10 minutes with each group.
"I like doing sums like this because I can work them out," says Kerry, 7.
"Mrs Kerwin does kind of hard sums," says Kieran, 6. "Sums is my best subject."
Before the National Numeracy Project arrived in January, Four Dwellings Infant School, located in a deprived part of Birmingham, was already doing quite well with maths, according to Jenny Kerwin, and unlike other schools in the project was not too depend-ent on commercial, book-led schemes. One term later, its teachers describe themselves as "converts" to the project.
"The most useful part for us is the emphasis on mental strategies," says Sandra Walton, the headteacher. "It is giving children a vision and making maths accessible. They have already achieved more than teachers thought they could."
"Everyone works hard in maths lessons now; the project has helped them concentrate," says Clare Williams, deputy head. One boy in her class used to play up and say maths was hard, but is now focused on the subject and coming up with the right answers in the oral sessions.
"I had taught mental arithmetic before, but not in such a structured way, " says Clare Williams. "The group work is also easier to manage, because everyone is doing a version of the same thing. It's quite liberating for me, because I can spend all my time teaching, not just walking round the room checking on their behaviour."
A brisk pace in the lesson is important in keeping the children's interest. Jenny Kerwin encourages teachers to plan two or three different activities, and not to worry if the children do not finish them all. Differing abilities in the whole-class sessions can be accommodated by directing different questions at different children, and the project is also trying to develop strategies - such as digit cards - to ensure that all the children take part.
"Many teachers have been impressed by the amount of maths children can do in their heads. These oral sessions will do a lot to raise national test results, " says Jenny Kerwin.
Mental maths is also helping to raise children's self-esteem. "One girl came up to me in the playground the other day, and said, 'I can do doubles', " says Clare Williams. "Maths is really on their agenda now."