At first glance, the gulf between Charles Dickens primary school in Bermondsey and James Allen's preparatory school in Dulwich seems unbridgeable. The schools - one state, the other private - are at opposite ends, geographically and socially, of the London borough of Southwark. James Allen's is a private school in a well-heeled suburb; Charles Dickens is a mixed-age, mixed-ability state school in one of the poorest areas of the capital, where "the estate" is your home, rather than the car you use to take the dogs to the park.
But the 18 infant mathematicians, nine from each school's Year 1 or 2 intake, sail across the divide without even noticing. They're taking part in a project that is part of the Government's IndependentState Schools Partnership scheme - to them it's just fun on a Thursday morning.
So far, the scheme, set up in 1998, has embraced 100 projects linking classes or even entire schools across the sectors. They range from a maths mentoring programme linking the boys' public school Westminster with nearby Grey Coat Hospital school for girls, to an ICT project in Nottingham between Shepherd special school and Nottingham High School for boys. All the projects share what the Department for Education and Employment calls "relationships based on mutual understanding, trust and respect". The partners, it says, will value their "different skills, knowledge, experience, resources and conception of what is possible".
Jean Millar, a numeracy consultant who also works with the London borough of Camden, has been closely involved with both Southwark schools. For the first half of the autumn term, she spent a whole day a week in each school, working "in every class in every year group", and talked through the national numeracy strategy with every teacher. In the second half-term, she spent one day a fortnight in each school, consolidating the training and focusing on chosen year groups. Finally, nine children were picked from each school for the scheme on the basis of their academic ability and "readiness to socialise".
The pound;8,000 cost of the project was met by the DfEE, channelled through Southwark. By the time it finishes, these 18 children will have spent five mornings together, three at James Allen's and two at Charles Dickens, working on numeracy hour-based activities, before gathering for a weekend afternoon of maths fun and quizzes, with parents and teachers present, hosted by accountancy firm Pricewaterhouse Cooper. Watching them eagerly waving their hands in a numeracy class, the benefits are clear. "They've come out of their shells," says Dianne Lane, teacher of the Year 2 class at James Allen's.
As the children work on mental maths and measuring work, they form a single, unified group. They lap up work on making big numbers by the four operations and building number pyramids. "Children love making big numbers," says Mrs Millar. "They become very excited and want to do more and more."
As they munch their chocolate biscuits during break, the children agree with Erin, a six-year-old Charles Dickens pupil, that it's fun. Raven from Dulwich and Naomi from Bermondsey particularly like the pyramids. Edward from James Allen's explains that although he is good at maths, he doesn't usually like it. "This is better," he says.
Watching the children tear around the green space of the James Allen's playground, Dianne Lane, who has taught at the school for four years after 15 in the state sector, is pleased to see them getting on so well together. "When our pupils went to Charles Dickens, they said, 'It's such a small playground for so many children' and they clung to us. But the next time they just disappeared."
Largely oblivious to the social divide, the children have quickly formed into one group of similar ability. "It's been very successful socially," says Mrs Lane, "but also it's given the children lots of opportunities to talk about the way they work things out, seeing other ideas."
As the Government envisaged, both schools have benefited. The calm of the prep school, with its spacious grounds and the stimulus of a highly able peer group, has added to the experience, confidence and, above all, self-esteem of the Bermondsey children, believes Charles Dickens headteacher Liz Owens. Barriers may have been partly lowered, she says, by the similarity of their uniforms - red sweatshirts and no ties - so they are not easily distinguishable. For the James Allen's contingent, says headteacher Piers Heyworth, there are many long-term gains, not least the dismantling of the belief that children from state schools are "rough - like those in Grange Hill".
As an independent school, James Allen's is not obliged to take on board the Government's national numeracy strategy, and time constraints - caused, for instance, by the part-time deployment of specialist music, French and PE teachers - have made the structure of the numeracy hour hard to follow. But Dianne Lane has seen the benefits of elongating the maths lesson to follow the NNS structure. The increased emphasis on mental maths and problem-solving allows the children, most of them very able, to follow their inclinations to a larger degree than is possible with short, formal lessons.
At Charles Dickens, where an Ofsted report in November 1998 recommended action to raise maths standards, the knock-on effects have, says Mrs Owens, been "excellent". The partnership team is particularly pleased by the response of James Allen's parents. At first they were "alarmed" at the idea of sending their children into the badlands of the inner-city, but then a numeracy consultant gave them a demonstration lesson to show what their children would be doing and explained what it is to be numerate and comfortable with maths. Parents, who are accountants and bankers, ended up playing number games.
They were "totally won over", says Mr Heyworth, and even started pushing for their own children to be picked. As the DfEE Building Bridges booklet says: "All schools are in the business of trying to provide the best possible education for their pupils... There is more that binds the sectors together than sets them apart. It should become increasingly evident that an inclusive education system, built around partnerships, is worth striving for."
And the future, Mrs Owens and Mr Heyworth are sure, will bring more collaboration. Both are passionate about their links through Southwark. "This is our borough. Stephen Lawrence lived here. We need our children to grow up understanding difference and not being threatened by it," says Mr Heyworth. Mrs Owens adds: "Instead of playing sports matches, they are playing maths together."
CRITERIA FOR THE INDEPENDENTSTATE SCHOOLS PARTNERSHIP SCHEME
The DfEE will announce the names of successful applicants for a share of this year's pound;400,000 funding later in the spring. Some of the cash will be for demonstration projects. All projects must:
* involve at least one maintained school and one independent school;
* help raise standards of achievement for all pupils;
* build on an existing partnership scheme, or forge new links in an innovative way.
Further information from Stephen Mangan. Tel: 01325 391179. Fax: 01325 391148. Email: Stephen.Mangan@dfee .gov.uk
DfEE CHECKLIST FOR EFFECTIVE PARTNERSHIP
* Shared analysis of need leading to shared objectives
* Recognition of the strengths and respective roles of the partners.
* Understanding of each oterh's objectives
* Regular liasion meetings at all levels
* Exchange of information, for example through newsletters and websites
DfEE'S SUGGESTED AREAS FOR PARTNERSHIP PROJECTS
* Residential and day summer schools
* Gifted and talented children - particularly in music and ballet
* Special educational needs
* Healthy schools (for instance, walking-to-school initiatives)