Fudge ruins the recipe;Mathematics

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
Is the Government's numeracy strategy a quick political fix? Tony Gardiner is sceptical about the underlying procedures.

As yet another set of recommendations lands on maths teachers' desks, questions about behind-the-scenes processes are long overdue.

The Government's numeracy strategy will be unveiled in the New Year. And the main features are expected to reflect July's report from the Numeracy Task Force, Implementation of the National Numeracy Strategy. But groups that have sought to offer advice to the Government about educational policy have often received short shrift - even committees the Government itself has appointed.

In this case, the delicate balance in the final report of the Numeracy Task Force was pre-empted on the day of its publication by a headline-grabbing Department for Education and Employment press release which distorted the report's conclusions. For example, whereas Recommendation 16 in the report began: "Calculators are best used in primary schools in the later years of key stage 2, and should not be used as a prop for simple arithmetic", the DFEE press release preferred: "The national numeracy strategy will see pupils in every primary school benefiting from a ban on the use of calculators by children up to the age of eight and restricted use throughout the remainder of primary school."

Such political distortion is all the more surprising since the task force was far from being independent of the government.

Its 10 official members quickly learnt that, even though they were presented as independent, and though they would be held accountable by colleagues within education for the clarity of their analysis and the realism of their proposed remedies, they were largely at the mercy of politicians and civil servants.

Thus, the drafting was done by civil servants based in the DFEE's Standards and Effectiveness Unit, whose every move was supervised, and every turn of phrase checked - and double-checked - by a bevy of senior civil servants and politicians before any member of the task force was allowed near. Moreover, as the final report clearly indicates, meetings were attended by numerous government "observers" who may not always have respected the spirit of this description.

So, how effective can we expect the national numeracy strategy to be? The hybrid nature of the report - combining political and professional inputs - has certainly helped to focus its recommendations. In particular, the detailed time-table for action in Appendix III could never have been included with such conviction if the report had been truly independent (in fact, the first two items highlighted in Appendix III were implemented before the report was published).

The whole episode reflects our continuing refusal to accept that improvements in education need time and careful planning. Issues have been dodged and recent mistakes repeated.

For example, those who were around in the 1980s should be nervous about the effects of recruiting 300 consultants from the chalkface. And those who experienced the negative impact on primary maths of teachers' Herculean efforts after 1990 to improve their science teaching will feel nervous about a numeracy strategy which follows hard on the heels of the literacy strategy. We may ignore such issues, but they will not go away.

Fortunately for the Government, and for the task force, the National Numeracy Project (NNP) had been beginning to address some of the issues, even if only in a preliminary way. This has at least allowed the task force to come up with a vestige of a strategy, centred on the NNP-based Framework for Teaching - a strategy which stresses the importance of increased structure and of active, focused teaching (as opposed to an unfocused attempts merely to "facilitate learning").

For all its weaknesses, this proposed strategy seems likely to be an improvement on what we have.

Yet the proposed strategy remains a very English fudge; for the NNP, which was set up as a five-year research project, has been transformed after just 18 months into a fig leaf to cover Mr Blunkett's nakedness. It is therefore crucial that the Framework be used critically. Thus, while most of the available funding will be directed to helping teachers use the current version of the Framework, effort must still be devoted to developing, sharpening and improving it.

Therefore, the hard-won section 28 which establishes the status of the Framework as "non-statutory guidance" - non-compulsory guidance that schools may use as they see fit - and the intended publication of a summary version are truly welcome.

The latter will highlight the key milestones, allowing schools to assess more easily whether they need to overhaul or merely adjust their current approach to the teaching of mathematics.

Success should not be judged merely by headline-grabbing key stage 2 test results, but by how well we prepare pupils to face the mathematics which they need (fractions, percentages, algebra and geometry) at key stages 3, 4 and beyond.

Tony Gardiner is reader in mathematics and mathematics education at the University of Birmingham

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