Maths - The key to better numeracy? Beads

24th January 2014 at 00:00
Community-wide maths game pays off by improving scores

A new currency is flooding Dunbar. By the summer, there could be 100,000 multicoloured beads percolating through the small East Lothian town and surrounding countryside, and children should be much better at their sums.

The ambitious project aims to involve the whole 13,000-strong community in improving children's basic numeracy. Dozens of shopkeepers have been supplied with a stash of beads, one of which is given to a child each time he or she correctly works out the cost of their purchases or the change owed.

A close eye is being kept back at Dunbar Primary on the running totals. At the end of the school year, the class with the most beads will win a day out. "It's really taken off," said Lindsey Barley, the teacher behind the idea. "Some kids have already collected 100 beads."

The bead contest is just one part of a year-long numeracy project, Together We Count ( This follows another of Ms Barley's brainchilds, Dunbar Reads Together, which encouraged dozens of volunteers to boost literacy and raise the profile of reading by sharing book chat with the town's children. The idea has since been taken up by six other Scottish authorities, as well as Essex and Northumberland in England.

But numeracy presented a challenge that literacy did not: it is socially acceptable to be bad with numbers.

"I'd be rich if I had a pound for every time I've heard a parent say, `My Jimmy's no good at maths, but neither was I,'" said Ms Barley, who worked in the stock market as a fund manager before going into teaching. "It's shocking the attitude that some people have."

Now, throughout the year, every child wears a lanyard displaying their favourite number fact, which changes once a week.

Local businesses are fuelling that enthusiasm. A bicycle shop has hidden water bottles for children to count and they can learn to check tyre pressures and design a bike.

At Torness nuclear power station, children get a little orange mascot - and the chance to win an iPod - if they complete a measuring and counting questionnaire; the power station's visitor numbers have gone up 750 per cent since it got involved.

There are challenges throughout the school year, with prizes of hot chocolate, ice cream and extra play time. One, in the October holidays, asked children to cycle a woodland route to look for number puzzles.

"I've never met a child who can't improve numeracy through games," said Ms Barley, who has just taken up the role of depute head at Pencaitland Primary, also in East Lothian.

She added that assessments at the start and end of the year would measure students' progress; early signs suggested that scores may have improved dramatically.

Carol Copstick, a senior officer with Education Scotland, praised Together We Count at a national maths conference in Glasgow last week: "The work they're doing in Dunbar, in getting the whole community involved, is great. We are looking at it quite closely."

Other speakers at the conference organised by charity Children in Scotland, including Angus Council numeracy support officer Carol Lyon, talked about "huge increases" in children's motivation when maths was treated as an open-ended puzzle rather than a series of rigid techniques.

There was a boost for Angus and five other authorities when Jeff Maguire of the Scottish government's Learning Directorate said that money was likely to be available for another year for their trial "numeracy hubs", which explore new approaches to number skills. Initial funding is due to run out in March.

"Teachers in England envy you," said Maulfry Worthington, co-founder of the Children's Mathematics Network website, at the Glasgow conference. Scottish teachers seemed free to explore different approaches to maths but this was not true south of the border, she added.

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