Unbind your mind

Paul Scruton

Paul Scruton says a recent 'Friday' article on a maths scheme was out of line. Here he picks up the gauntlet

Steve Abbott ("Booklets that bind", Friday magazine October 9) says SMP 11-16 has "encouraged the retention of mixed ability grouping in schools with teachers who are more effective teaching whole classes". What's more, he adds, it has "masked the shortage of properly qualified mathematics teachers" and "de-skilled good teachers". Many who read the article and the letters it provoked might easily have assumed SMP 11-16's whole aim (and indeed the aim of the SMP itself) is to support individualised "mixed ability" maths classes. Not so.

Only part of the key stage 3 material suits classes of that kind; the rest, and the whole of the key stage 4 provision, consists of textbooks for whole-class teaching, arranged in tiers for varying ability levels.

The shortage of qualified mathematics teachers is a national disgrace - but the problem doesn't skulk exclusively in SMP 11-16 classrooms, conveniently hidden from political view. Let any published scheme drive your teaching rather than be under your control and you can count on the Office for Standards in Education to let the world know.

Like anyone else developing teaching materials, the SMP has always had to respond to schools' perceived needs. These days, year 7 is usually the timetabler's final headache, and maths departments that want the intake divided into ability sets are often told "sorry, but no". Other maths teachers believe setting pupils before they've had at least a while to adjust to their new school is unfair - however well key stage 2 SATs portray a primary school's output, they're undependable at the level of the individual child. It is better to get to know the new intake before the hard-to-reverse and sometimes self-fulfilling act of setting occurs.

Of course, Mr Abbott makes some good points. He isn't the first to have noticed that individualised arrangements can lead to loss of pace, sloppy checking and, perhaps worst of all, a classroom where nobody asks questions and nobody explains anything. Many good teachers have followed his line of taking materials intended for individualised use and deploying them in teacher-led, whole-class work.

Support for the central role of the teacher is a key objective of secondary materials being developed by SMP. These will start to appear at the end of 1999 and are in book form right from the start of year 7. The course is designed to be used for up to a year -in "mixed ability" classes or where setting is employed - the school can choose. Where it is used with mixed-ability the whole class is expected to be working on the same topic area, so opportunities for whole-class activities and discussions have been built in.

By the end of year 7 the course divides into three tiers on the assumption that setting is in place from then onwards.

The course has been thought-out from scratch - it isn't a repackaging of SMP 11-16. But we've again used our long-established method of working with teachers to develop the materials, trying drafts out in a wide range of classrooms to ensure the end result is workable and motivating.

With fortunate timing, we shall be able to hone our drafts to get an exact fit with the forthcoming revised national curriculum. Crucially, these drafts have included teacher-led activities and sections designed to stimulate productive and interactive class discussion: feedback from trialling schools telling us how these have worked and how teachers took control of them is being distilled into teacher's guides that are an integral part of the course. Hence the title of the course - SMP Interact.

We soon saw it was unrealistic to expect the teacher to work interactively with the whole class for most of the time - some pupils need individual attention on the current topic, others need time to work independently and practise skills. Our policy of coming clean with pupils, by preceding each unit of work with a statement of its aims and concluding with a short self-assessment section so students can see what progress they've made, has been well received. As might be expected in the current climate, we have taken seriously the difficulties many pupils have with number work. At the same time we have included some computer-based activities that take a realistic view of schools' hardware provision.

So while SMP 11-16 will no doubt be around for some time yet, SMP Interact will soon be available, not merely allowing teachers to deploy their professional skills, but actively encouraging them to do so. I hope Mr Abbott will approve.

Paul Scruton (left) is chief executive of the School Mathematics Project

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