The great Gatsby way

21st June 1996 at 01:00
Graham Last has shot to fame with a new approach to maths from the Continent. James Montgomery interviews him

Graham Last is suddenly the man of the moment. First David Blunkett sang the praises of the whole-class maths teaching he has pioneered at six primary schools in Barking and Dagenham, then it was featured on Panorama.

Now, following a visit by Education Secretary Gillian Shephard, the project has been awarded Pounds 165,000, in addition to the initial funding provided by the Gatsby Foundation, an educational charity funded by David Sainsbury.

Mr Last, the senior inspector in the east London borough for the past six years and a driving force behind the programme, is having to turn down a flood of invitations to speak about his work The Gatsby method, as it is called, is copied from Germany and Switzerland and involves a high level of oral work, with the class working together rather than in small groups.

But while politicians queue up to hail Barking and Dagenham's initiative, Mr Last is not getting carried away.

"We are only interested in what will work for us to raise levels of attainment," he insists. "We are not saying that this the only method to teach maths. There should be a repertoire of teaching methods - and participative, whole-class teaching is an important part of that repertoire, and one that has not been developed in this country."

Probe further, however, and a sense of purpose is unmistakeable. "I don't believe there are ability ceilings for children. Children can get there if you can find the right methods. This country is obsessed with the most able and the least able; no-one worries about the vast majority in the middle. I am trying to launch a crusade to improve the lot of the children in the middle.

"Some people say we are very right-wing in what we are doing, but if you examine it, we are into equality of opportunity. We want our children in Dagenham to have access to the same high standards as Zurich. Some of my more left-wing colleagues find that difficult to see. They are into the business of allowing children to work at their own pace. If you do that, you are pigeon-holing them."

Mr Last is adamant that whole-class teaching does not mark a return to the "sit down, shut up, listen to the teacher and copy it down from the blackboard" education of his youth.

"Teaching maths is usually about pencil and paper. We are saying over half the time ought to be for oral work in the majority of maths lessons."

And while the techniques are copied from Germany and Switzerland - where the maths ability of eight and nine year olds is two years ahead of their British peers - his view of how much can be borrowed remains pragmatic. "It is not a question of transplanting wholesale something from another country. What we have to do is take bits, and run with the things that work."

The Department for Education and Employment funding will enable Barking and Dagenham to begin Gatsby methods at Year 2 instead of Year 4. "We originally started at Year 4 because that is what the headteachers in the pilot wanted to do," Mr Last says. "But we can now see that we need to start much earlier. "

The programme will also be extended from five weekly units of 25 lessons to include all three terms at year two.

Lastly, more money for training and equipment means the pilot can be extended to another 15 schools in the borough. The equipment includes an overhead projector for every classroom so pupils can demonstrate what they have learnt to the rest of the group.

Following Continental practice, Barking and Dagenham produces a manual setting out how to teach various topics. "It is giving teachers not only the content of what is to be taught, but how it should be taught," Mr Last says. "I think teachers are crying out for that. The national curriculum tells them what to teach, but not how to teach it.

"Abroad, you often see blackboards that are a work of art - their teachers are extremely good at that kind of presentation. Our teachers find it very hard to write on the blackboard and have difficulty with the sort of hand-writing they are supposed to use. That is the fault of their training. We have a team of advisors to help write these materials, and in-service training to help teachers by working alongside them in their classroom."

While the Gatsby technique is particularly suitable for number teaching, Mr Last predicts it will be extended to other subjects, such as English, geography and history. He has already noticed the methods being adopted informally, in one case by a teacher who did not teach maths but had picked up the principles from a colleague.

To counter the criticism that making a class progress as a unit works to the disadvantage of the most able youngsters, Mr Last suggests more extension exercises and the promotion of bright children to the year above.

There is no research to show whether Dagenham and Barking's levels of attainment are catching up with those of Munich and Zurich, but the signs are encouraging. "Children are much more confident in their mental facility. They can stand up in front of the class and explain how they did a sum. Our children find it difficult to express themselves in that way, so we are very pleased. "

But there is still some way to go. "Standards are still too low and while we believe the methods will up standards, we have got no comparative evidence for it," Mr Last admits. "When we start at Year 2, our aspiration is for our children to have the same ability in maths as children in south-west Germany. "

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