How to claim a lead in GCSE maths

7th January 2000 at 00:00
When teachers praise its flexibility in the classroom and pupils enjoy its use of bold graphics, Ian Wilson discovers that the sums add up for schools thinking about buying Headstart's integrated learning system for mathematics

There is now a real choice of integrated learning systems on the market, but only a few which provide material for secondary students. The GCSE maths program Headstart has been received with real enthusiasm by schools and I have seen the positive reactions of students who work with it for myself.

There are several factors that make Headstart stand out from other systems. Perhaps the most obvious is the feel of the program: bright, primary colours, bold pictures, but a solid, well-constructed layout that gives you confidence this program is going to be easy to use - and so it is.

Sound is used sensibly and features the reassuring voice of John Timpson (well, reassuring to people my age at least). What is not immediately apparent is the high level of support that is given to schools which adopt the system. Training in how to use the management system is provided for mathematics departments. Several schools were involved in testing the material and user groups are springing up to write new questions and evaluate and modify the content. This gives the impression of a community of schools and the company appears committed to a genuine partnership with schools in developing the product; updates for the program are posted via the company's website, for example.

The program is divided into four sections - Syllabus, Tutorial, Lab and Test. In the Syllabus Building each topic is explained using screens that require students to interact with the program. Their use of graphics is excellent. The topics in the Syllabus can be tested in the Tutorial Tower. Students are given help when needed and I particularly liked the way questions could be broken down into a series of simpler steps. Then it's on to the La Dome, where students can test ideas, making use of tools such as a graph plotter, a sequence generator and a shape transformer. As its name suggests, the Lab is especially useful for exploring concepts and carrying out investigations, although I was disappointed with the limited scope of the experimental probability machine.

The final part of the program, Test Mountain, lets teachers choose the subject, level and duration of the test. No help is provided, but an "answer analyser" checks the work (done on screen) and looks for errors, which are then presented in a report at the end of the test. Teachers can print their own tests in the form of exam scripts, and questions from two examination boards are currently being added to the program. These will be provided to user schools as free upgrades via the website. A scientific calculator can be called up at any time, as can a glossary of mathematical terms. You can also see which parts of the program you have visited by means of the Trail feature, and can skip back to previously visited areas.

Management of the system by the teacher is very straightforward. When constructing a package of work for a student, teachers can incorporate elements from any of the four components and have a high degree of control over how many questions a student must answer, the time allowed and the threshold pass mark. The reporting section gives breakdowns not just of individual performance but also issues like how well topics have been understood by classes.

Both the content and management system of Headstart mean it has to be on the shortlist of any school considering buying an integrated learning system. It was on ours - until we bought it.

Headstart GCSE Maths Price: pound;150 per workstation or pound;5,550 site licence Tel: 01978 810 000 or Christmas, Ian Wilson was headteacher at Woodcote High, Croydon. He is now head at Ryders School, Walton-on-Thames

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