No 'wonder drug' says maths chief

14th November 1997 at 00:00
A national campaign for family numeracy is more likely to raise standards of maths than importing foreign teaching methods, says the head of the Government's numeracy task force.

Despite alarming evidence of poor mathematical attainment in British schools, sweeping change would do more harm than good, says Professor David Reynolds, who is in charge of devising a nationwide maths strategy.

The Government has already promised that three-quarters of 11-year-olds will reach the level expected of them on the national curriculum by the end of Labour's first term in office.

But in a speech delivered at London University's Institute of Education, Professor Reynolds promised a cautious approach. There is, he said, no "wonder drug" guaranteeing mathematical success.

The numeracy task force seems certain to recommend a programme that will enable more parents to assist their children with maths, and is likely to capitalise on proposals to make 2000 an international year of numeracy. The group's first report is due after Christmas.

At present, said Professor Reynolds, most children get no support at home. "Many parents would feel able to help with their children's reading," he said. "But it's clear from everything that we know that parents find it much harder to engage with numeracy or maths.

"At home there is almost zero provision. If we were able to generate some provision, some parental skills where at the moment there are low levels, the family background would have an enormously increased effect."

Professor Reynolds is a well-known advocate of Far Eastern teaching methods - particularly those used in Taiwan - based on agreed targets and interactive whole-class teaching.

But, in a clear indication of what his group will tell the Government, Professor Reynolds called for a blend of British and foreign methods. He warned against radical solutions. "So great has been the climate of criticism that there has been a tendency to look for wonder drugs on the future of mathematics, a tendency to propose root and branch solutions.

"The danger is that we lurch from one extreme to the other, unable to find the blend which is what many other countries are attempting to find," he said.

Professor Reynolds was upbeat about the prospects for tackling underperformance, suggesting that, when it comes to maths, schools have a great deal of room for manoeuvre. Statistical studies, he said, show that schools can affect up to 25 per cent of a child's performance in maths, but only 12 per cent in literacy.

"The hope, therefore, is that we can use both the education system and family background to produce more success," he told the conference, held by the Institute's School Improvement Network.

This will be welcomed by the Government which is encouraging innovative school-parent partnerships, designed to give parents confidence with schoolwork.

Professor Reynolds's approach also appears to be comparatively cheap. While acknowledging the importance of poverty, he said that schools and families together could make a dramatic improvement.

"It's possible to say that pulling on these two levers together would be more powerful than the influence of other material factors."

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