Maths review should be more radical

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Professor says we should copy foreign successes
Professor says we should copy foreign successes

Plans to revamp maths teaching in primary schools may not be radical enough, one of the experts who drew up the national numeracy strategy fears. The criticism by David Burghes, mathematics professor at Plymouth University, comes before next week's publication of the Williams review of maths teaching.

The review, led by Sir Peter Williams, the former chair of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, is expected to contain recommendations for how primary schools can improve work with those children who struggle with the subject.

Professor Burghes said he feared the review would simply lead to more initiatives and different training for teachers instead of more radical change. Writing in today's TES, he says the concentration on test results means schools in England are possibly ignoring international approaches which could be more effective.

He suggests English schools should copy strategies tried overseas, including rearranging desks so children sit in pairs facing the front rather than in groups; a re-emphasis on whole-class interactive teaching; and creating more links between areas of mathematics. These practices are used in countries such as Singapore, China, Russia and Hungary, where pupils are better at answering the types of questions featured in the panel below.

The 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study put Singapore and China in the top four of the league table for maths skills among 10-year-olds, while Russia, England and Hungary came in at number 9, 10 and 11 respectively.

Professor Burghes, who was on the original maths task force behind the numeracy strategy, said: "I'm not against group work for some subjects, but it really doesn't work in maths - the groups become dominated by one child. I'm not saying we should return to chalk and talk. I want more whole-class interaction, with children coming up and talking to the class."

The Williams review is expected to recommend the Every Child Counts initiative that the Government has suggested could give focused support to pupils with maths difficulties, in a similar way to the Every Child a Reader programme which has supported those struggling with English. Both consist of intensive intervention for the bottom 5 per cent of children and less intensive interventions for the next 5 to 10 per cent of learners.

The review's interim report in March, recommended that the core of any programme for the lowest achievers should be a one-to-one lesson with a teacher trained in schemes such as Numeracy Recovery or Mathematics Recovery.

For children who were slightly better, a less intensive scheme such as Catch Up Numeracy could help, while all pupils could benefit from multisensory techniques.

Although the report named certain schemes, it stressed that it did not endorse any in particular, and that schools should use those they felt appropriate.

Schemes it said worked were those where teachers had been well trained, there had been good pupil assessment, parents and carers were closely involved, and children were carefully reintegrated into regular classes afterwards.

Questions that schools hope the final report will answer next week include how the extra work can be funded, whether small group teaching can be as beneficial as one-to-one and what age assessment should be carried out.

Numbers game, page 27.

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