Playing the Continental game

15th March 1996 at 00:00
William Ford junior school in Dagenham is one of those schools which exudes warmth and harmony as you walk through the door. Headteacher Carol Robinson is carefully counting out schoolbags vouchers with a pupil. His eyes light up as they put them in the postbox. "We've definitely got the maximum-minimum thermometer now," he says, before trotting off to class.

William Ford is a three-form entry school on a fairly deprived estate near the A13. Slightly less than half the children receive free school meals. Parents who are employed often work in local service industries. It is a church school with a policy of non-selective entry and it has good test results. Says Ms Robinson: "Children here have the capability and the ability to be equal to anyone."

The school is one of six taking part in the Gatsby Foundation pilot project. In that time, says Adrian Lucas, deputy head, there's been a "marked improvement in mental arithmetic".

For Gatsby lessons, as they are known, the pupils sit in a horseshoe shape so that they can all see the teacher and each other. Year 4 are working on the lower number bonds and Year 5 up to 1,000. At present they have cut the lead time between Continental and English schools from two years to 18 months; school staff agree with Graham Last that when the scheme is running throughout the junior section it will be possible to eliminate the Continental advantage. The pupils are taught in sets here, contrary to the Continental practice, because the maths curriculum is broader, children enter school with wider gaps in achievement than on the Continent and not all the children share the same social expectations of the learning group.

Within each half-year the children are learning in a cohesive group what maths co-ordinator Jeannette Law calls "second nature" maths and maths language: children like 10-year-old Kay, who says she "loves" it; children like nine-year-old Jay, who is getting his Mum "to do thousands" with him at home; and children like Ashley who says he "likes maths. We make games to help each other not to have fun - though it is fun and all".

Ask any child after a lesson what he or she has learned and they are clear. "We did rounding up to 10s today," says Michelle. They understand the advantages of the whole-class method. Says Hailey, 10: "Children do a lot of explaining. The teacher chooses the people, you don't have to put your hand up." Joe nods: "They explain what you've got to do and then let you get on and do it." Kay, who, whispers Ms Robinson, is "transformed from last year, " waves her hand. "I was nervous at first, but now I enjoy it."

Learning by "being put on the spot," says Ms Law, is part of the the main idea of the child working hard and succeeding and that "helps them in the rest of their work".

Back in the staff room Mr Lucas takes a longer view. The difference between pre and post-unit tests suggests a "fantastic" improvement of 30 per cent.

The scheme is constantly being refined through training, evaluation and rejigging in the light of practical experience. Says Mr Lucas: "It's hard work. But it works."

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