'There are 31 teachers in our room'
Eight-year-old Victoria Alldrick presented her teacher, Shirley Wigley, with this maths problem on the first day back at school. She had amused herself thinking it up over half term. It is an indication of Boldmere junior school's success at maths that half of Victoria's class say it is their favourite subject. Such is their enthusiasm that all 26 pupils give Shirley Wigley three or four problems of their own creation every week.
Next week parents will receive a report from the Office for Standards in Education which says that maths, physical education and English are the Sutton Coldfield school's strengths.
Daily doses of mental arithmetic are encouraged, the multiplication tables are taught and the children are divided into sets for number work in Years 5 and 6. Calculators are used as a learning tool in the adjoining infants school.
Mrs Wigley, a 44-year-old PE specialist turned maths co-ordinator, only has an O-level in the subject but her confidence and enthusiasm for numbers is impressive and infectious. She is not against whole-class teaching per se but believes an over-emphasis on it in maths is inappropriate. Children's eyes glaze over in whole-class teaching, she says, adding that she could name eight pupils who would lose out.
Mrs Wigley is incensed at the suggestion in some newspapers this week that those children who get left behind in whole-class teaching should be given extra homework. These were the very children who would not or could not do homework on their own. In whole-class teaching the progress of high-fliers would also be sacrificed while slow learners are allowed to catch up, she says.
Central to Mrs Wigley's philosophy is the belief that maths is special. "We should learn more about how children learn. That is what makes you a successful teacher. That is more important than whole-class or group teaching," she says. "Maths is different from any other subject. The next step depends on the step before being learned properly. These building blocks are essential."
Boldmere is an over-subscribed school with a mixed intake of 366, including a small number of Asian and Afro-Caribbean children.
Two school rules devised by the children on Mrs Wigley's classroom door are: "If we are stuck, ask a teacher" and "Share with other children". The teacher is anyone, be it a real teacher or a pupil, who can provide the answer.
Mrs Wigley explains: "It is sharing about what we have learned - children talking about their maths. If the lessons are solidly directed by the teacher, you do not get that. Our children do not have to put their hands up - they can chip in. It is an open environment.
"There are 31 teachers in our classroom. I think that is really important. A level one girl who was barely even that has come out as average. She has really blossomed in this climate and I'm excited by the process. You could ask me to be a disciplinarian, to make all the decisions, to do whole-class teaching but that would be an impoverished learning situation.
"Child-centred learning is not the same as children working at their own pace. It's about recognising where each child is and taking them forward from that point."
According to headteacher Diane Thomas, the OFSTED inspectors were impressed with pupils' grasp of mathematical terms, and with their use of applied maths, for example, in using brochures to price a family holiday.
Mrs Thomas says: "The inspectors said pupils enjoyed maths, were keen to answer questions and take part in discussion. They said the children's concentration and motivation were high." They also said that generally teachers' expectations were good but that the more able pupils were insufficiently challenged - that is something the school is working on.
Mrs Thomas and Mrs Wigley think the whole-class debate is yet another Government "balloon" destined to deflate teachers' confidence.
"Teachers desperately want to do the right thing. There is nothing wrong in questioning how we work, but we need to be supported rather than criticised, " says Mrs Wigley.