The sum of experience;Briefing;People;Interview;Anita Straker

5th February 1999 at 00:00
The numeracy strategy is the next big thing to hit primary schools. Geraldine Hackett talks to its architect

Anita Straker is the woman behind the second great upheaval to hit primary schools in as many years. Teachers have been doing a literacy hour with all classes since last September; from this autumn, they will be expected to do a 45 to 60-minute daily maths lesson as well.

As the director of the National Numeracy Strategy, Mrs Straker has been in charge of the pilots and the preparation required to transform the way maths is taught to young children. Out will go solitary working from books and worksheets; in will come active teaching of the whole class in mental calculation and graded group work.

In many ways she has had an easier time of it than her counterpart directing the literacy strategy, for the simple reason that the teaching of maths does not arouse the political furies that surround the teaching of English. It is also the subject many primary teachers feel the least confident about.

However, the workload as director of such a high-stakes project - David Blunkett has risked his future on pushing up the maths score of 11-year-olds - is punishing and Mrs Straker is 60, an age when others might be winding down to their retirement.

There is much about Mrs Straker that is unusual. She is a visionary in maths, with both a PGCE and a MSc in the subject, who has taught in a primary school. She first taught in secondaries, but after a career break to bring up her four sons, she returned to teaching at a first school in Windlesham in Surrey.

"That head insisted I needed training to teach five to eight-year-olds, so he ensured I observed classes. It was an excellent experience," she says.

Mrs Straker has some difficulty walking after breaking her hip in a car accident in Wiltshire, where she was the county's maths adviser.

"The director came to see me in hospital and wanted to know what I thought of the Cockcroft Report (produced because of concerns about the poor maths of school-leavers)," she says. "I lay there in traction with a computer rigged up by the bed. In 1981 that was a more unusual sight than it would be today."

The job that prefigured the numeracy project was her secondment from Wiltshire to the then Department of Education and Science, to direct a national scheme to introduce computers to primary schools. There was money to train a teacher and buy half a computer for every school.

"It was very exciting, but the Government pulled the plug after three years. I thought that was short-sighted. We didn't reach as many teachers as we should have done," she says.

She talks with great enthusiasm of the time she spent in the late 1980s as district inspector in the Inner London Education Authority, abolished by the Conservatives in 1990.

"It was such a fantastic place to work. There were so many talented teachers working in difficult circumstances," she says. It was during this period that she was involved in writing maths materials for schools.

The last of her posts before she applied for the numeracy project job was as deputy director of education in Camden.

Now the project is about to go national, Mrs Straker is confident it will make a difference. The results from the pilot show that nearly all the schools improved and it appears to have helped the weakest pupils catch up.

The unexpected impact of the strategy was that the trial schools improved their English scores at a better rate than the national average. This may be because schools transposed the style of direct teaching to other subjects or it could be that mental maths improves thinking skills.

Children will be taught their times tables, but according to Mrs Straker that is because it is important to be able to deal with numbers in your head. That doesn't imply arid rote learning. She dimly remembers singing times tables with her sons while they were being bathed.

The end result may mean future generations could be saved the embarrassment experienced by Stephen Byers, the trade and industry secretary, who during his time as minister for school standards mistakenly told listeners to Radio 5 Live that seven eights equal 54. More importantly, it should put into reverse the decline in children's grasp of number that puts Britain at the bottom of the league table of advanced industrial countries.

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