'We never stop playing,' says the headteacher of a primary school involved inan early intervention numeracy project. Julie Morrice goes to see exactly what they're playing at
AS SHEETS OF paper go, the number grid looks about as inviting as the average tax return. It is a big square with lines of numerals from 1 to 100, laid out so that the numbers increase in ones horizontally and in 10s vertically. Yet the pupils of the P2 class at Langlee Primary, on the edge of Galashiels, bring out their copies with enthusiasm. Every hand shoots up when the class is asked who would like to count along a line of numbers. Big numbers are a big thrill to small children. "What's your favourite number?" I ask the blue table. "Seven," says one. "A hundred," another. "Infinity."
Most P2 classes make do with numbers up to 20, but Langlee is the guinea pig school for an early intervention project that aims not only to catch P1 and P2 children having difficulties with numeracy, but also to help raise expectations for the whole class. Number manipulation is still restricted to numbers up to 20, but children are being familiarised with numbers up to 100.
The project is the brainchild of Tom Renwick, maths adviser for Scottish Borders Council, who is writing support materials for 5-14 maths. These range from guidelines for maths in the nursery all the way up to comparing pounds, dollars and yen at Level E.
"It is important to get those children who are struggling very early on," he says. "They might not get learning support until P3 or 4, so focusing on maths from the very beginning can make a huge difference."
Sheila Lowe is the sort of kindly teacher children warm to immediately. She was the nursery teacher at Langlee, but with funding from the Scottish Office, has become development officer, numeracy (see box). Her remit is to flesh out Renwick's draft curriculum for nursery children, and to take both small-group and whole-class sessions to boost number skills and encourage mental agility. Sheila Lowe was appointed in January, and the plan is to run the pilot scheme at Langlee until October. Then the practice will be spread across the Borders and further afield by means of videos made at Langlee, in-service training and visits to nurseries and primaries.
"It's too early to say whether it has changed the way we teach maths," says Langlee's headteacher, David Kiernan, "but the feeling about it in the school is positive. Maybe it's too early for it to be anything but positive."
With his shirt sleeves rolled up and a flapping Winnie-the-Pooh tie, David Kiernan is enthusiastic about the physical side of learning maths. "We never stop playing," he asserts. "A lot of best practice in primary schools is working on how play is structured." He would like to see the hands-on approach to maths being carried further up the school. "Think of Primary 6 learning vulgar fractions and decimals and percentages, and doing it all in their heads. We assume they're too old for sand trays, but they need to see what is going on to be able to understand it."
David Kiernan is conscious that maths can play second fiddle to language in the earliest stages of education. "We get some children coming to school with a lack of basic conceptual development. People think that's just down to language problems, but it's not. Maths plays a vital role in understanding the world.
"We're very careful about language, not making assumptions about what children do and don't understand, making sure we explain the basic tools, but with maths we often jump in feet first."
Langlee has a number of strategies to ensure children get to grips with mathematical concepts from the very start. In the large, cheerful nursery the draft maths curriculum is being put through its paces. It centres on the normal round of storytelling, model-making and guided play. There is colour recognition and sorting; counting up to 10 of various objects; recognising squares, circles and triangles. There are no revolutionary new techniques, but the focus on maths does help nursery staff to think creatively about activities and encourages them to lay the groundwork for maths in P1. Nursery teachers are finding that most children are familiar with numbers and are even ready to start writing them. Expectations are being raised.
In the campaign to make maths count, parents are an important part of the equation. At Langlee, parents have been asked to come in and play games such as Snakes and Ladders with groups from nursery and P1 classes. The school is reasonably impressed with the response and has noticed that fathers and other male relatives are getting involved. "We've found that if you ask them to play Ludo with the kids at home, dad is doing it with them," says Sheila Lowe. "The television is being turned off and everybody is playing the game. Whereas with children's reading, it tends to be mums who do it."
"We do take on board how much power and influence parents have," says David Kiernan. "Maths is an everyday activity: whether it's car numbers or door numbers, or numbers of steps, or the shape of cereal packets, or the number of plates on the table. It's all around us." He is keen to increase parental involvement in the numeracy project, and the school generally, by starting up a breakfast club or after-school homework club. It would, he suggests, not only make sure children had something to eat before school but increase the time they were exposed to "positive input". It would also give parent volunteers a focused period for playing the games that increase pupils' number power.
Encouraging parents to play with counting and maths is undoubtedly a good thing, but Langlee's depute head sounds a warning note. "I counted everything with my own children - cars, buses, knives and forks, sheep and cows. And then one day I was clearing the table and I picked up a plate of baked beans. My son burst out, 'Oh, please, mum, don't count the beans!' Too much of a good thing can be rather indigestible!"