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Twelve launch the mission: possible

Diana Hinds reports on the countdown to set up numeracy centres in 12 local authorities.

A new body of ideas and instructions about the best way to teach number is beginning to make its way across England, steered mindfully by the Department for Education and Employment.

This information from will feed into the Government's 12 numeracy centres, managed by local authorities. They will be funded for five years starting from this month, although the first teachers will not be involved until the new year.

The numeracy centres will each have two consultants, appointed by the local authority, who will work alongside teachers in 80 to 100 primary schools. Intensive one-week training sessions will be offered at the centres in Barnsley, Bedfordshire, Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry, Dudley, Durham, Hackney, Lancashire, Lewisham, Tower Hamlets and Wigan.

Each centre will begin work with about 20 schools, often selected for low achievement in maths, although there will also be a number of schools included who are performing reasonably well but have a strong commitment to raising standards.

Mental arithmetic will loom large on the centre's agenda, as will more practical work and a more imaginative use of resources.

"It isn't just about practising sums," says Anita Straker, the DFEE's national numeracy centre director. "Children will need to learn multiplication facts, and calculation will be an important part of it, but not in isolation - it's much more about using numbers in context."

Interpreting numbers from graphs is also something which concerns her. "I have been in schools where children are producing graphs, and very often there is little difference between what seven-year-olds and 11-year-olds are doing - the size of graph changes, but the basic maths is the same."

One of the functions of the numeracy centre programme will be to expand and clarify the maths teaching set down in the national curriculum, providing details and examples. "By and large, primary teachers do not feel terribly confident about maths," says Mrs Straker. "They need to have a better understanding of the progression involved, such as the 16 steps that it takes to add or subtract two-digit numbers."

As local authorities prepare for the launch of their numeracy centres, there is widespread agreement about some of the problems besetting maths teaching. "We have been concerned for some time about over-reliance on published maths schemes, because the programme of study is not always matched to individual needs," says a Durham education authority spokesman. There the work of the numeracy centre will strengthen an existing maths initiative.

"Children working through these schemes have little direct contact with their teacher," says Lynn Churchman, maths inspector and adviser for Lancashire. "If teachers are not confident in maths, they are often tempted to let the children get on with a commercial scheme in the belief that they will learn more from the printed page than from them. But the teacher is the child's best resource. We need to give them a more secure understanding of the maths curriculum and what they can do to teach topics well."

"There needs to be more application of mathematical skills," says Brian Wardle, Birmingham maths adviser. "In weight, for instance, children might be able to add weights written on a page, but they will not be developing a feeling for the size and weight of different objects, or having to decide which measuring units they should use. On the printed page, these options are closed down for the child."

Mary O'Sullivan, head of St Joseph's Lower School, Bedford, which has been selected for numeracy centre work this year because of its commitment to maths, says her staff are in need of some fresh ideas, particularly in measuring work and in subtraction. "You can feel isolated - you never quite know if your approach is the best one, and you wonder if there are better ideas. Having some fresh input will definitely be helpful."

Concerns about children not getting sufficient individual attention in maths lead, inevitably, to questions of methodology: how best should the class be organised? Anita Straker has some very clear ideas about this: "It is simply not efficient to teach 25 or 30 children as individuals. It depends a bit on what you are teaching, but I would hope that children will work in bigger groups than they do now. I want to see a much higher proportion of oral work, and much more interaction between teachers and children. Mental arithmetic, for instance, can work well with a big class."

But such ideas may not easily find favour with all schools. Hew Wright, head teacher of Ramridge Junior School, in Luton, also selected for the Bedfordshire numeracy centre, is waiting to see the extent of direction, from Mrs Straker, on whole-class teaching. "It could go too far. We do not have much whole-class maths teaching here, but we have a system of flexible grouping. I would be worried about too much mixed ability whole-class teaching."

Another aspect of the numeracy centres which has caused consternation in some quarters is the plan to train specialist teacher assistants, on the basis of a GCSE in maths and English. "Some people are worried that this could be a back door into teaching for those without sufficient qualifications," says Lynn Churchman, in Lancashire. "But we are very clear in our scheme that these assistants cannot work unaided; they can only work alongside the teacher. "

Although the numeracy centres will be operating a common maths programme, in terms of content, this can be tailored according to the needs of each school. Each school, for instance, will have its own audit by the two consultants, who will then work with the school on an action plan to meet the specific performance targets set for them. The numeracy centres will offer resources and a reference library, as well as a site for in-service training, and the intention is that successful ideas, or lesson plans, can be disseminated to other schools in the authority.

In Birmingham, where only 80 of the authority's 400 primary schools will be directly served by the centre, Brian Wardle hopes to install new computer hardware and maths software as a way of spreading the benefits of the project. Teachers will have access to the Internet - and possibly to a new Birmingham numeracy section on it - so that they can e-mail their consultants.

In Bedfordshire, plans are advancing for large-scale involvement of parents in the initiative - something which Anita Straker has not yet turned her mind to. Schools will be encouraged to find ways of helping parents support their children's mathematical learning at home. The local authority will work with all those who come in contact with parents, such as education welfare officers, and learning support staff, to reinforce the message. In addition, the authority hopes to collaborate with local employers who often ask for better numeracy skills from their prospective employees and provide workshop sessions in the workplace for parents of young children, led by the numeracy centre consultants.

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