'Real maths' wins praise

12th December 1997 at 00:00
A Government numeracy project has achieved 'staggering' results. Frances Rafferty reports.

Nearly 40 per cent of the primary schools taking part in the National Numeracy Project are claiming outstanding results, a report submitted to the Government's Numeracy Task Force shows.

Children from these schools aged 10 and 11 (key stage 2) improved their results by 15 per cent using whole-class teaching and rigorous learing of the times tables. And in 29 per cent of schools, six and seven-year-olds (key stage 1) also made substantial gains.

The interim report from the National Numeracy Project measures the progress 221 schools in England and Wales have made since the scheme started a year ago.

While on average all schools improved their results in 1997 by 1 per cent at key stage 1 and 8 per cent at key stage 2, the project schools improved by 4 per cent at key stage 1 and 9 per cent at key stage 2.

With a high proportion of the project schools in disadvantaged areas and with twice the national average of children on free meals, statisticians have called the improvement "staggering".

The results are particularly encouraging for ministers who have promised that 75 per cent of 11-year-olds will meet the expected standard by 2002. The numeracy project also uses much of the "traditional" approach favoured by both David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, and Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector. It is widely regarded as a major influence on the national numeracy strategy which the Government aims to unveil in the new year.

Anita Straker, director of the project, said: "It is very promising. We have only been going for a year, but results are evidently improving and lots of good practice is happening. The children seemed to enjoy the structure which gave them a sense of security. Some of them called it 'doing real maths'. "

In many cases, however, the improvement still left them shy of the national average. In 12 project schools the results were worse than the previous year. This has been attributed to poor teachers, bad management and local problems. There was also some variation in the performances in different local authorities.

The numeracy project avoids the practice of children being taught in unstructured groups. The lesson starts with interactive whole-class teaching, with all children being expected to contribute. The class is then put into ability-based groups and given tasks. The session ends with a whole-class resume.

One of the report's more surprising findings was that girls did not do as well as boys, bucking the trend. Co-ordinators say they need to keep a check that girls play as active a role as boys in lessons.

Compared with white pupils with otherwise similar characteristics, pupils from black African, Asian and Chinese backgrounds did better.

The project also found schools which spent longer doing maths did better. Schools with more children on free school meals had lower scores - despite the improvement shown by some - and average scores tended to be higher in church schools. High pupil-teacher ratios had an adverse effect. But having a higher proportion of staff with maths degrees or pupils who had attended nursery school did not affect scores.

The report has been presented to the National Numeracy Task Force, chaired by Professor David Reynolds. The project's work mirrors that of a number of other schemes, such as one at Barking and Dagenham, which support interactive whole-class teaching.

Professor Reynolds is expected to deliver his task force report to the Government in the new year outlining the national numeracy strategy. Primary schools have been urged to teach maths for at least 45-50 minutes a day. A national year of numeracy is expected to be announced in 1999.

John O'Brien, headteacher of St William's RC primary, Bradford, said he had seen some outstanding results since joining the national numeracy project. He said: "We started with maths as a strength but knew we could do better. Mental skills have improved enormously and all the children achieved more than the standard expectation."

He said one disadvantage was the time needed for planning which skewed organisation of the rest of the curriculum. The children also spent more time learning maths.

He said "If we had to do the same amount of planning for literacy as well, I'm not sure we would have had enough time. We also benefited greatly from the extra money which allowed supply cover when staff were being trained, support from the project co-ordinator and extra, free materials," he said.

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