Sociable ethos

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Karen Gold on a scheme designed to move whole classes to level 2 success by the end of key stage 1.

Which pupils can we realistically expect to gain level 2 in mathematics at the age of seven? Children with special needs? Children with moderate learning difficulties? Children from deprived areas or illiterate families? Children with autism? The answer is all seven-year-olds, say staff at Manor infants' school, where Year 2 pupils - including those with some or all or these hurdles to overcome - have, for the second year running, achieved 100 per cent maths scores at level 2 and above.

Manor infants' is in Barking and Dagenham, the 24th most deprived borough in the country. Its head, Carol Thomas, heard that the LEA was planning an experiment in maths teaching in 1995, and immediately asked to join.

"Our children were getting reasonable results, but they didn't enjoy maths and they didn't think they were good at it," she says.

The experiment Manor infants' joined was the Improving Primary Mathematics Project (IPM), brainchild of Sig Prais, an economist who decades ago linked English pupils' relatively weak international performance in maths with the nation's poor economic performance, and decided that maths teaching in the German-Swiss canton of Zurich had the answer.

With Barking and Dagenham, and National Institute of Economic and Social Research staff (NIESR), Professor Prais analysed what made Zurich maths teaching so successful - half Zurich's 13-year-olds score better than the top 25 per cent of English students - and then, in collaboration with Swiss authors, wrote English teachers' and pupils' materials to imitate them.

So what are these success factors? Walk into any Manor infants' Year 1 or Year 2 classroom, and the first thing you notice is the seating. Children have set places in two concentric horseshoes, in which almost every seat faces the front.

"At the beginning we were rather against the idea of horseshoes," says Manor infants' maths co-ordinator Wendy Blunden. "We were told to do it. Now we can't imagine working any other way."

With everyone facing the front, the lesson can be dominated by talk and demonstration rather than work on paper. IPM sessions start with a 10-minute slot of warm-up mental maths, very similar to that of the numeracy hour. They continue with the main teaching topic directed towards the entire class, with the teacher demonstrating, pupils demonstrating, the teacher questioning pupils, pupils questioning each other.

Whenever pupils speak they must be audible and use complete sentences. This helps them clarify their own thoughts, but also puts the focus on the pupil rather than the teacher, says Manor infants' senior teacher Deb Gurden.

She says: "If the children are speaking clearly, there's no need for the teacher to repeat what they're saying. Lots of teachers do that - in fact it's quite hard not to. But when they work together like this, it's not all coming from me, it's coming from them. When they ask each other questions it makes them think. The head once asked everyone in assembly what they could do to help each other, and one child put up her hand and said 'Speak in sentences!'" In the third section of the session pupils may continue practising their skills orally as a whole class, they may work individually in workbooks, or they may play maths games in pairs. (IPM has a strong emphasis on games, but almost no investigations.) Activities never divide pupils into groups. In Zurich, as in the far East, the idea of breaking a class into ability groups, in which children work on different concepts and at different levels, is not accepted. IPM has extra games and worksheets for what it emphatically calls "fast finishers". But these are more complex problems on the topic occupying the whole class.

"Our whole philosophy is founded on the fact that children will always move forward together," says David Rosenthal, principal inspector and IPM project leader in Barking and Dagenham. "I suspect many schools using the numeracy hour are slipping back to the old default position of having three ability groups. We don't. Our principle is that you can only discuss things together with children if they all have something to discuss.

"We actively require our children to explain things, not to the teacher but to the class. The minute you break them up into small groups and say 'you do this' and 'you do something else', you lose the ability to teach through a completely oral approach."

Initially, IPM keeps children together by moving more slowly than the national numeracy project. Year 1 children, for example, are not expected to do calculations beyond 10 - but they are all expected to know number facts to 10. By Year 3 IPM accelerates beyond the numeracy strategy, with children learning all their tables that year, for example, rather than during Year 5. But progress is still in very finely graded steps, each spelled out in individual lesson plans in teacher's manuals.

The IPM teacher's manuals are huge: three, each several centimetres thick, per school year. (They also contain photocopiable games, overhead transparencies, and so on.) Teaching to the book in this way, even with regular training sessions from Barking and Dagenham, was initially hard, says Wendy Blunden. "We were constantly looking at the folders, thinking 'what am I going to do next?', 'what have I left out?' Now I tend to read through the lesson and make it my own."

And the results speak for themselves. Manor children not only all reach level 2 at age 7, but 49 per cent of them gained level 3 last year, and another 25 per cent were on 2A. Elsewhere in the borough, and in other boroughs, and among the pupils who have used IPM in key stage 2 (for which materials are published next year), the story is the same. Pupils who would previously have been at the bottom are gaining expected levels; substantially more children are clustering at the top.

According to David Rosenthal, most Year 6 children in Barking are now working at level 5. And, ultimately even more important if the rush to give up maths at 16 is to be stemmed, they are enjoying maths, says NIESR fellow and project manager Dr Julia Whitburn:"When I visit schools, the level of enthusiasm I see is just staggering. It's a much more sociable ethos, building a much more co-operative spirit in class. It's just more fun if everybody is involved."

* Improving Primary Maths is published by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and NIESR. Teacher's manuals: Year 1 set of three pound;255; Year 2 set of three pound;255.

Workbooks: Year 1 set of five pound;5;Year 2 set of six pound;6 Contact IPM, Sentinel House, Poundwell, Modbury, Devon, PL21 OXX. Tel: 01548 830950. Fax: 01548 830878

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