Number is up for homework

25th June 1999 at 01:00
Sarah Cassidy reports on researchers' claims that quality teaching is the best way to raise primary maths standards

Nightly homework will do little to raise maths standards among primary pupils - but quality of teaching will do much more, says new research.

The same study also suggests that pocket calculators do not harm children's understanding.

The findings could prove awkward to a government which has put regular homework and calculator-free maths at the heart of its strategy.

Nine-year-olds who did maths homework once or twice a week did no better than those who only tackled homework occasionally, according to academics from King's College, London.

Those who were never set maths homework improved almost as quickly as those who were.

Project director Margaret Brown, professor of mathematics education at King's College, said: "There was no significant difference between the children's gains, which suggests that neither calculators nor homework had any real effect on performance.

"Our research showed that it was quality of teaching that mattered - not classroom organisation, homework or use of calculators. So far we have found that teachers who felt that pupils should be creative had a slight effect on performance. We are still investigating what other factors improve children's maths achievement."

The research suggests that the nightly homework proposed by Education Secretary David Blunkett may not have the desired effect in maths. Mr Blunkett last year announced new guidelines, which said all eight-year-olds should be set 20 minutes of homework every day, rising to 30 minutes for 10 and 11-year-olds.

The project also supports the National Numeracy Strategy's view that calculators are "an effective tool for learning" in primary schools. The Government, however, has tried to discourage their use.

Advisers who devised the strategy were forced to condemn the Government's press machine last year, accusing it of misleading schools and distorting their views by announcing that the strategy would ban calculators from primary classrooms.

The research is part of a five-year project by academics at King's College to investigate progression in numeracy.

Two cohorts of pupils, aged four and nine at the start of the project, will be assessed at the beginning and end of every school year using specially-designed maths and problem-solving tests.

This improvement data is then matched against home, school, teacher, classroom practice and pupil information to investigate which factors affected performance.

The homework and calculator research measured the improvement in maths of 600 nine-year-old pupils. This was done in 75 classes in 38 schools in four education authorities; teachers were then questioned on the methods they had used.

Professor Brown said: "The next step is for us to observe lessons at these schools, because the only way to determine what improves children's maths performance is to get into the classroom and see exactly what is going on there.

"We need to more precisely characterise the 'quality' which is closely linked with improvement."

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