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Wee county's big plus for maths

The gnomes of Alloa are using the same scheme that has put Swiss pupils ahead in numeracy, reports David Henderson

Six-year-olds in Clackmannanshire have stretched ahead of peers in four English authorities after just a year on the same innovative maths programme. The Scots are on average six months younger but have lapped up a direct, whole-class teaching style and surpassed expectations.

Teachers claim an interactive, questioning approach which emphasises mental agility and oral explanation is putting the fun back into their job, easing workload and raising attainment sharply in an area that has been resistant to significant gains.

The initiative has been commended by HM Inspectors who have advocated such changes.

The "wee county" believes its approach to early literacy is now bringing dividends in numeracy as pupils become more familiar with a new pattern of learning. Studies by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research show that 75 per cent of primary 2 pupils are achieving 70 per cent in tests, some 5 points ahead of pupils south of the border who sat the same test. Pupils of all abilities have made significant progress, confounding doubters.

The council bought into a maths package run by the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, which translated materials from a scheme in Zurich. The Swiss, along with the Hungarians, are best known in Europe for their maths ability. Now the gnomes of Alloa are proving that what works in one country can with adaptation work elsewhere. The Swiss aim to have 80 per cent of pupils achieving 80 per cent.

Sandy Wilson, the council's head of lifelong learning, said there was still some way to go to catch up with Switzerland but progress had been swift.The success of the 19 primaries nvolved is attributed to their efforts in early literacy. The reading age of primary 3 pupils is now 17 months ahead. Gains in their first two years have been sustained and increased.

"Success breeds success and children are feeling good about their learning. They have growing self-esteem and greater pride in their capabilities. Teachers also love it and we have had no resistance," Mr Wilson said. But he is careful not to go overboard about what may seem a back to old-fashioned teaching approach. It is only an answer to how to teach core skills and will not be suited to other curriculum areas, he says.

The Improving Primary Maths (IPM) programme is based on a package of materials which details courses week by week, with simple instructions and illustrations of work. Lessons are structured around four phases - an introduction and warm-up of five minutes; a taught element of 10-15 minutes; a practice and consolidation phase which can involve individual or small group work; and a conclusion to fix learning.

All schools are devoting around 45 minutes a day to the IPM scheme. Teaching styles are notably different. It is largely a whole-class, interactive affair with far less written work and more focus on understanding numbers. Pupils have to explain their answers in front of classmates.

Lesley Robertson, an adviser, said: "One of the strengths of the programme is that the children know the pattern of the lesson. They know they will revisit what they have done and know they will get a chance to practise. They have a far better understanding of how numbers work.

"One P3 child in answer to a question said: 'That can't be right because that number is not a multiple of 10.' Before, the child might have known the answer but not why."

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