SMP criticism and smokescreen

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
While I am no fan of School Mathematics Project 11-16 materials, I must take issue with Steve Abbott in "Booklets that bind" (Friday magazine, October 9) .

The two most offensive points are in the section starting "I believe SMP 11-16 has harmed children's education" because it has "encouraged the retention of mixed-ability grouping in schools with teachers who are more effective teaching whole classes" and "deskilled good teachers by reducing their opportunities to use their knowledge and understanding".

What does being a more effective class teacher mean? Class teaching merely provides weak mathematicians with the opportunity to show off how well they have learned the topic for the day. It is a far more difficult to respond to the needs of 20 or more different individuals working at different levels on a variety of topics.

Whole-class teaching does not allow for the level of individual attention that pupils need to get to grips with a subject as demanding as maths. There is no evidence that whole-class teaching is more effective than individualised learning programmes - go back and read "How Children Fail" by John Holt to see why mixed ability, individualised methods were developed in the first place.

On the second point, how does using individualised programmes deskill the good teacher? It doesn't - it highlights the poorly-organised teacher with little or no grasp of mathematics and stops them hiding behind the desk at the front of the classroom.

SMP materials have a lot of faults but you cannot blame them for what is actually poor teaching. Too many maths teachers kid themselves that what appears to them to be a perfect explanation delivered to a whole class which copies it down accurately is effective class teaching. It is merely a smokescreen which has always alienated the majority of pupils from mathematics and continues to do so.

Paul Garcia 24 Rowan Drive Turnford, Hertfordshire

Steve Abbott replies:

Both Paul Garcia and Geoff Tennant have missed my point. They say that mixed-ability teaching done well is good teaching. Unfortunately, what often happens in practice is that mixed-ability classes are either taught as if they were a homogeneous group or they are left to teach themselves on an individual basis. I know of very good maths teachers who struggle to cope with genuine mixed-ability teaching. It is hard for them to make their critical interventions at the right time if their pupils are working at several difficult tasks. Weaker teachers find it almost impossible to manage. This is not SMP 11-16's fault. I admire SMP 11-16's materials, which helped improve maths teaching in the 1980s and I welcome the new course planned for the next century.

In the editing process - which The TES regrets - the sense of my article was affected. It is not SMP 11-16 which has harmed education, but the uses to which it has sometimes been put.

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