Fast forward to September;Numeracy

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Paul Noble samples a National Numeracy Strategy training course.

Swept along by storms of change, primary maths teachers may feel they have lost the plot over the past 30 years. It seems that children's foundations in number are less secure than they ought to be. "I do" has lost contact with "I understand". The National Numeracy Strategy, for which training has now begun, may put that right.

Day 1 of a three-day training course for headteachers, maths co-ordinators and special needs co-ordinators kicks off with videotaped pep talks from David Blunkett and Michael Barber emphasising the importance of the task ahead. The sound on our video machine isn't synchronised with the vision, but we all get the message.

We're told that mathematics is the second-worst-taught subject identified by OFSTED, (RE is the worst) and our world ranking in numeracy is unacceptably low. Apparently, one of the main causes is the rush to teach pencil-and-paper calculation before mental processes are established. Where NNS techniques have been used, significant improvements have been achieved.

Enter the director, Anita Straker, who talks a great deal of sense on the need to focus on classroom teaching and avoid unmanageable paperwork, particularly assessments. She says the framework is not a scheme, which seems to be splitting hairs, especially as later we're asked to compare the framework with our school scheme.

We're taken through the three-part daily maths lesson to be fitted into the 45 to 60 minutes allocated to maths - not a numeracy hour. More videos are shown including one of a class carefully enunciating multiples of 10:

"firtee, fortee . . ." Most teachers hate observers who dissect their lessons, but we join in as directed.

"Death by video" is one colleague's verdict on the first day, although it was actually the overhead projector that died - twice. The training definitely goes OTT with the OHP.

On the morning of day 2, we deal with approaches to calculation and mental mathematics. This is the closest the course comes to active learning. If the focus of the Numeracy Strategy is to be on classroom activity, we will need more of this.

Going through the arithmetical processes is interesting - no vertical addition until key stage 2, and no commas in numbers because Europe doesn't use them. In the afternoon, the course switches to medium-term planning sheets, and the atmosphere changes. Brows furrow and the hall seems to become not so much silent, as sullen and depressed. Oh dear, lots of paperwork after all.

We are joined by governors on day 3. They are plunged into an exercise involving the lesson observations and the judging of teaching quality (will teachers be asked to judge the quality of brain surgery at their local hospital soon?). Today is badly focused - the session on involving parents turns into a session on setting up formal homework procedures. The room becomes restless. The Government may want this but the educational arguments seem thin on the ground. Do we stick with what we believe is right or do what we are told?

What a biddable lot teachers are. Throughout the three days we are talked at a great deal, and little interaction takes place between the speakers and the group. The framework itself is received positively and many teachers are eager to get on with it, but the course is strictly to a plodding script - and occasionally tedious. Less than a quarter of the time is spent on teaching approaches, the avowed focus of the strategy, and although the framework involves much more than number, number is the only topic dealt with.

To be really successful these training sessions need to inspire and enthuse teachers, which ought not to be difficult given that the Numeracy Strategy really is a Good Thing.

Paul Noble is head of St Andrew's primary school, Blunsdon, Wiltshire

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