We must add to what we have

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
Stand firm in your refusal to remain conscious during algebra. In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra.

The mathematically challenged often find, to their relief, that Fran Lebowitz's jokey dictum turns out to be largely true. Nevertheless, we frequently have to use maths skills in everyday life, even though the mathematical ingredients of a Sunday dinner or a DIY job may not be immediately obvious. It was therefore reassuring to learn last week that the National Foundation for Educational Research had found that English 13-year-olds are much better at "applied maths" than most people had given them credit for. As Peter Wilby points out, outscoring countries such as Colombia and Iran is hardly a cause for jingoistic flag-waving (page 22). But given our dismal showing in other international tables it was some consolation to hear that we are matching Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and the Czech Republic in this area of maths.

That rare piece of good news was followed by the announcement that a higher proportion of seven, 11 and 14-year-olds are reaching the expected national maths standards. But now another research study (page 1) suggests that there has been no improvement in 11-year-olds' maths performance despite the umpteen millions of pounds that have been pumped into the national curriculum. So, what are we to believe? Have the many critics of school maths teaching been causing needless panic? Or do we have a serious maths problem that is more difficult to solve than Fermat's Last Theorem?

The Office for Standards in Education argues that we do have a problem but evidently thinks that it has the solution. In its latest report, The Teaching of Number in Three Inner-urban LEAs, it says, quite rightly, that there is too much variation between schools. What we need is more whole-class teaching, and more emphasis on mental arithmetic and problem-solving, OFSTED concludes.

This is a familiar desideratum, but it is debatable whether schools should adopt all these ideas, or accede to calls for more homework and a ban on calculators. We still do not know why English teachers who are relatively successful at teaching science are less effective at teaching maths. All we have are hunches.

English primary teachers are indeed less likely than teachers in most other countries to use a whole-class approach in maths lessons. The same is, however, true of science. Comparative international studies also show that more classroom time and more homework do not necessarily result in higher maths scores, especially at primary level. Nevertheless, the proposed daily numeracy hour may yet help to raise standards.

Of course, it is possible that the written tests used in the Third International Maths and Science Study may have underestimated English children's abilities because they were poorly matched to our curriculum (Maths Extra, page V). But it might be more productive to consider the report from researchers at King's College, London, who are building up a profile of the effective teacher of numeracy (Maths Extra, page II).

Whether we could ever mass-produce this paragon is also open to question, but we should remain optimistic. At present it appears that the traditional English emphasis on encouraging independent thinking is enabling many children to succeed in data analysis, probability, and problem-solving (despite OFSTED's misgivings). As Professor Patricia Broadfoot of Bristol University and others have pointed out, the challenge now is to graft on some of the computational skills that other education systems, such as France's, seem better at imparting. But in reaching out for more we must not let go of what we hold already.

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