Maths failures beat the best

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Children from a disadvantaged area of Aberdeen have proved they can match Standard grade maths results across the country after learning their sums in first and second year through an interactive computer package that talks back.

A below average group of 52 Northfield Academy pupils subsequently gained Standard grade results a level and a half above their peers in last summer's exams. Teachers at the school say the results are "staggering" and will have huge implications for learning.

The project is the first in Scotland to use integrated learning systems (ILS) in a controlled experiment and to measure results against national standards monitored by university researchers.

Its success is sure to appeal to Tony Blair in his drive to ratchet up standards by harnessing new technology to classroom practice. The Northfield experiment reinforces the Prime Minister's message that social disadvantage is no barrier to academic achievement.

Tom Robertson, Northfield's headteacher, said first and second-year pupils in 1994 were given 15 minutes a day, four times a week, on computers that respond to their progress in solving basic maths problems, as many as 35 in the time allocated. Even two years later, they sustained their earlier progress. "It takes them over the threshold and on to higher levels," Mr Robertson said.

Julia Fuge, principal teacher of maths and the project's co-ordinator, said 52 pupils in three classes were compared against 154 pupils in eight other mixed-ability classes who received no computer-assisted learning.

No extra help was given after the second year but 40 per cent achieved maths grades 1-3, against 27 per cent among the others. The school average over the previous four years was around 22 per cent.

Mrs Fuge said: "This is significantly better than the school has ever done. Results have been fairly steady over the past five years. But the ILS group has doubled the expectation of the year group. It is quite astounding. It does indicate to you that these kids, given the right opportunities, can achieve what everyone else can achieve."

Mr Robertson commented: "You are breaking the cycle of low self-esteem. You are putting these youngsters through a system that has taken away extraneous factors that reinforce negativity and showing them they can do things."

Results in English are slightly less significant after a similar model was followed for basic literacy. About 50 per cent of Northfield pupils over the previous four years gained levels 1-3, but 68 per cent of the ILS group reached the higher grades, a shift of half a grade better than expectation. The non-ILS group recorded 54 per cent.

Northfield is one of 12 projects in Britain testing the methods but its results are among the most significant, according to researchers from Leicester University. Mrs Fuge said: "We put this down to the integration back into the classroom. All the teachers have taken ILS on board and use it as a tool to enhance their classroom teaching."

Mr Robertson said integrated learning was "differentiation to the nth degree". Pupils were focused for longer when they sat at one of the 52 machines, enjoyed the experience and did not have to worry about how their friends were doing.

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