Victoria Neumark describes how one inner-city authority is raising maths standards by involving parents and setting targets
Anna Lodge beams at her 22 Year 1 children. It is Thursday morning, coming to the end of the second numeracy lesson of the week, but the circle of children is still filled with eagerness. They are concentrating on the cards laid out on the carpet. What's going to happen next?
Mrs Lodge, maths co-ordinator at St Francis de Sales infant school, Haringey, north London, reminds them that they have played this game before and is encouraging.
"Before Christmas you only knew numbers up to 30, but now I hope you'll know them up to 60 and by the end of the year we expect you'll know all the numbers up to 100."
There is a pleased wriggle on the carpet. "So, today we are going to look at the numbers between 30 and 60. We are going to use some words - can you say 'Between'?" "Between," chorus the children. As Mrs Lodge runs through some key mathematical words and phrases such as "above" "below" "more than" "less than", hands shoot up to have a go.
"Christopher, can you say what is 31 add 2?" Christopher can, and does. He turns over card 33. Can Lauren say what is between 31 and 33? She is pretty sure but there's a bit of bating of breath until she has turned over the card 32, and a sigh of triumph when Mrs Lodge says, "It is 32, isn't it?" So, for about 10 minutes, the game goes on, with Erin finding four more than 40, Jessica counting on her fingers to get to three more than 43 and Sharleen needing a bit of help to establish the number before 37.
Then we get to the hard bit. Can Jenna tell the group what is 2 less than 60? She shakes her head. There are wildly divergent views on offer, with Larissa's confident 68 leading the field but other contenders such as 62 and 67 pointing to a fundamental misconception. Mrs Lodge hears the group's opinions before closing firmly.
"When we say 'less than', it means a smaller number. Is 68 a smaller number than 60?" Some squinting at the grid of number cards here, but a definite consensus: "No."
"So which way are we going to go to get 2 less than 60?" Fifty-eight being correctly identified, Mrs Lodge prepares to wind the session up with counting in 10s, to claps. She points out how 60 always comes after 50, so that 68 could not be less than 50 and adds cheerfully, "We can't move on past 60 yet, can we, so we'll play this game again."
As the children stream out to play, Mai trots off to her daily stint on the SuccessMaker software and is soon totally absorbed in picking out ordinal numbers. Jessica hangs back. She has finished her go on SuccessMaker and longs for more. "When I go home," she says proudly, "my mum has tidied up my room and my dad cleans the computer screen and I do maths on my big computer and I write poems and I like it."
"You see," says Mrs Lodge, "parental involvement is the key to what we do here. It is what really makes the difference."
For the past three years, St Francis de Sales, an inner-city school whose excellence was recognised in the "Ofsted Oscars", has been running phased maths teaching in Years 1 and 2, as well as phased literacy. For one hour, twice a week, the whole year group is split into four groups. Phase 1 is the ablest children who have reached or exceeded the expected key stage standard; phase 2 those who are near that level; phase 3a those not yet there and phase 3b those with special needs.
It has been, says Margarita Mooney, headteacher of St Francis for 12 years, "really motivating, really challenging". Separating groups with different learning speeds means, says Mrs Lodge, that whether a child is in the 18 high-fliers of phase 1 or the six statemented children in phase 3b, he or she is "with like-minded pupils - they breathe the same air".
For the past two years, Mrs Lodge has also been using the ideas pioneered by Margaret McKeever, maths adviser on haringey's STARS (Setting Targets and Raising Standards) project, funded by the Single Regeneration Budget.
The key to success, believes Ms McKeever, is "sharing everything with the parents". The numeracy objectives are established using her own Number Recovery scheme, a detailed breakdown of basic number facts for the primary years; their implementation is tied to a structured interaction with families. Also, each child has near-daily use of the expensive SuccessMaker software, an integrated learning system from Research Machines. The pound;2,000 package electronically teaches, assesses, prints out homework sheets and gives reports to teachers.
Target-setting is intimately bound in to dealings with parents. Each child is allocated two specific targets for each half-term - one achievable and one challenging - agreed at meetings with parents; each child has short, regular homework in books read by teacher and parents; each child gains recognition for reaching targets. Leaflets on each of the national curriculum targets make it easy for the teachers; photocopies of these sheets are stuck in to the child's target books.
For many families in inner-city Haringey, language is a problem. English is frequently an additional language and mathematical terminology can be hard to grasp. "Language here is our whole problem," says Mrs Lodge. "If I had said 'take away' instead of 'less than' just now, the children would have not been able to give the answer." Bringing the children's numeracy along means bringing the parents' language along too - but the rewards are immense. "Parents are so thrilled to be part of the child's learning," says Ms McKeever.
So thrilled that, says Mrs Lodge, they will regularly bring in their children half an hour early in the morning to ensure they get their go on SuccessMaker, a vital part of the STARS project. Even more vital, everyone agrees, is the weekly assembly in which success certificates are given out. "They are just so delighted to get them," says Ms Mooney.
Praise and the knowledge of success go hand in hand with raising teacher expectations, says Ms McKeever. As the project progresses, success in turn is fed back into refining of the targets and in-service training on numeracy. It works, and, says Ms McKeever, "It's certainly raised our self-esteem as well as the children's."
Every one of the 32 schools in Tottenham has had some involvement in STARS, if only by using SuccessMaker. Six have used the Number Recovery scheme and 12 IMPACT, the parent involvement plan. Those using IMPACT have registered an 18 per cent increase in performance in key stage 1 SATs, comparing 1995 with 1998. The two schools which have implemented all three strands of the project - IMPACT, target-setting through Number Recovery, and SuccessMaker - registered a 14 per cent improvement, well above the other schools in the borough.
There are lessons here for the implementation of the numeracy strategy. Lessons about gearing learning to pupil level of knowledge, about staff commitment. As Ms Mooney says, "We're no different from any other school. What makes the difference is staff commitment. It could never work without the dedication of our teachers working together as a team."
But, above all, the lesson is that parents are the key to children's numeracy.
For more information contact Alan Boyle, Chief Inspector, Haringey, tel: 0181 829 5050
* Involve the parents at a level they can relate to * Focus on mathematical language * Use target-setting in home- work as well as in class * Give frequent, real rewards and public acknowledgement * Use SuccessMaker, but make sure it is in constant use * Review in teams regularly, being flexible to the children's progress