Speak now or never
Excellence in Schools is the white paper setting out the Government's plans for education. The consultation period is almost at an end, the deadline for responses being October 7. Many of the proposals will have far-reaching effects on the teaching of mathematics, and if teachers don't take every opportunity to respond we should not be surprised if our views go unnoticed.
We will probably all subscribe to the document's aims. But some of the means of achieving those aims are open to criticism.
Raising the level of numeracy is a prime focus. The Government proposes that all primary schools should have an hour's teaching of mathematics each day. It says early evidence from the National Numeracy Centre suggests each primary year group should have a dedicated time for mathematics and stresses the importance of interactive whole-class teaching, differential group teaching and times tables.
Prescribing teaching styles in this way, on the evidence of a small-scale study, is dangerous in the extreme. For one thing the pilot classes feel they are special, extra time and money has gone into funding the work and the teachers chosen are, in the main, those happy with such a regime. Given these factors, it would be surprising if achievement did not increase whatever the teaching method.
It would be interesting to see how many of the National Numeracy Centre pilot classes overlap with the National Literacy Centre pilot classes. Do the good results carry over when infants have been doing a tightly regimented hour of mathematics and a similar hour of English each day for two or three years? What will be lost in the process? Teachers may assume all the mathematical needs of the children have been met by this work. Mathematics may no longer be integrated into the curriculum as a whole.
Our system has produced pupils who can use mathematics creatively, a talent envied by those on the Pacific Rim. We would be foolish to rush to emulate their teaching methods in an attempt to improve league table performances without looking at the wider picture.
As well as specifying the type of teaching, the Government remains wedded to the idea that national tests, provided by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority at ages seven and 11, together with mental mathematics tests at age nine, are needed to raise achievement levels. While such tests can be useful, the emphasis on using the results to measure the success of a school may mean testing harms the wider mastery of mathematics.
The white paper's other proposal is that all secondary schools and some primaries should set their pupils. The document states: "The challenge for schools is to ensure that all children, whatever their talents, develop their diverse abilities. Mixed-ability teaching has not proved capable of doing this in all schools. It requires excellent teaching." It continues by stating that setting should be the norm unless a school can show it is getting better than expected results another way.
Once again the presumption is that changing to a new teaching structure will make failing teachers produce good results. Not only that, the white paper assumes that teachers who produce good results using mixed ability teaching will produce equally good results when setting.
The question of how "good results" are to be measured is left unanswered. Many schools set for mathematics. Some produce mathematically competent students who have no fear of the subject. A few fail miserably. The same can be said of those who teach in mixed-ability groups.
Surely what is needed is to look at those cases where the system is failing and deal with them individually. Otherwise if schools are to be asked to change from mixed ability teaching to setting, support must be available to ensure they cope with the many problems, such as the lack of motivation and loss of self-esteem among those placed in lower sets.
A new standards and effectiveness unit will gather examples of and issue guidance on best practice, from the United Kingdom and abroad, in organising classes to meet the differing abilities of pupils. But apart from setting, the document says target grouping, fast-tracking, accelerated learning and the systematic teaching of learning skills are to be encouraged.
It seems decisions as to what constitutes good practice have been made ahead of the evidence. The unit should finish its work before rules on teaching methods are drawn up.
How can you get involved in the short time available? You may have a copy of the paper in your school. If you haven't but have access to the Internet you can find the white paper, a summary and the questionnaire on http:www. open. gov.ukdfeewpaperindex.htm. Otherwise all comments can be sent to the Department for Education and Employment.
The response form for comments on the wider issue of the General Teaching Council is on http:www. open.gov.ukdfee teach teaching.htm.
DFEE, Excellence in Schools, Freepost, floor 13, Crown House, Linton Road, Barking, Essex IG11 8BR
Ann Kitchen is a research fellow at the centre for maths education, University of Manchester and chair of the general council of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics