The true value of the national numeracy strategy

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Recent writing from the educational research establishment concerning the National Numeracy Strategy has been critical, even carping, in tone. Dark warnings of dire consequences, accusations of prescription, inconsistency and a narrowing of the curriculum are hard to recognise as descriptions of an initiative that saw key stage 2 test results improve by 10 per cent in its first full year, with individual authorities showing much larger gains.

This achievement is the result of an immense amount of hard work by teachers. I know: I was in a Year 4 classroom between 1998 and 2000 and the burden of planning and implementation was intolerable. But we soon began to realise that we were caught up in an experience that would change our teaching forever. Not so much because of the weighty tomes of examples, but through the struggle to make them meaningful in the classroom - the discussions with colleagues and advisory staff, the chance to watch each other, to work with outstanding practitioners - and through seeing with our own eyes the leaps our children were capable of making.

The SAT results are not an infallible indicator, but they do measure something: jumps in attainment are significant. Something big is happening and for the first time it is happening nationally. That implementation is patchy should not surprise us. The important thing is that the numeracy strategy, where it is well led, is working. Heads need more support and fewer initiatives if the Government is serious about literacy and numeracy.

But what of the charge that the whole thing is an unresearched act of faith, that a narrow concentration on numeracy skills, though it may lift us up the international league tables, is no guarantee f real understanding, nor of the ability to use and apply knowledge gained; indeed, may militate against it by reducing time and breadth? Here I have to admit that my response is from the heart, from experience rather than from the data there has so far not been time to collect.

My evidence comes from the enthusiasm of teachers I talk to, the children I see confidently explaining their own methods, and the acknowledged jump in mental ability thanks to the long-overdue postponement of the introduction of written methods. That standard written methods are still required by around Year 6 does not worry me. They can be used as a teaching aid with children whose understanding and mental skills are good. The framework is a pragmatic blend of mental, written and calculator methods. It supports maths, not just numeracy.

The strategy will need fine-tuning. But it is radical, even progressive, in many ways that have not so far been acknowledged, not least in its insistence that teachers engage with the children concerning the maths they are doing and in its emphasis on vocabulary and discussion by children. Crucially, the strategy raises teacher expectations of what children are able to do. I often say to teachers: "And think what they will be like in six or seven years, when they come to you having had this all through from reception!" The answer is generally "Yes - let's hope they don't change it all before then."

It is a joy to witness the gains in children's self-esteem and attitudes to maths. Given the recent spectacular jump in results, the challenge to the mathematical education establishment has to be: have you got a better idea?

Laurie Rousham is a numeracy consultant for Suffolk

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