Adding up the European way

When it comes to sums, we have a lot to learn from Switzerland and Germany. Diana Hinds visits a school that's going continental
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The Independent Online
A class of 10-year-olds at William Bellamy Junior School, in Dagenham, east London, is learning the eight times table. All the children face the front, where Bob Garton, the headteacher, conducts the lesson from beside an overhead projector.

But this is no traditionalist return to the dreary days of chanting tables by rote. Instead, Mr Garton leads a lively, fast-moving, 45-minute session, involving much oral work, mental arithmetic and class participation, with children coming to the front to question others and to write answers on the projector.

"Three groups of eight?" Mr Garton begins, and his pupils, each with a set of coloured number cards in front of them, choose the right one and wave it at him. Then one girl is picked out to answer four or five questions on her own. "Right, Jessica, let's see how fast you can go ... good girl, excellent."

He moves the class on to mathematical problems involving simple multiplication or division, with the final 15 minutes reserved for individual number work on special worksheets.

The entire lesson is carefully structured for Mr Garton by the Gatsby Primary Mathematics Project, a joint initiative by Barking and Dagenham Council, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, which is providing some of the funding. Recent research by the institute found that British 10-year-olds are up to two years behind their Swiss and German counterparts in maths. The aim of the project is to raise standards by incorporating into British schools some of the distinctive features of continental maths teaching, such as whole-class work and a greater emphasis on mental arithmetic.

Since January 1995, 850 nine- and 10-year-olds in six Barking and Dagenham primary schools have been taking part in the project, with a daily lesson, like Mr Garton's, for a block of five weeks every term. At a maths conference this week in Birmingham, organised by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, Graham Last, senior schools inspector for Barking and Dagenham, will report on its success so far. He hopes for more funding - from the foundation, the local authority and the Government - to extend the project to 14 more schools, with children from seven upwards.

"Already our pupils have caught up with children in south-west Germany by about six months, and they are showing a significant improvement in tests," Mr Last says.

Although the concentration on mental arithmetic means that other parts of the maths curriculum get slightly squeezed, he believes this is an essential foundation for more complex number work. "What they have to learn is that there are four facts for each family of numbers - 7 x 6 = 42, 6 x 7 = 42, 7s into 42 go 6, 6s into 42 go 7 - and they have to learn them by heart. If you don't have these mathematical facts at your fingertips, you can't do an algorithm like 37 x 42."

Calculators, needless to say, are banned from these lessons - though they are used at other times. The overhead projectors that enable the teacher to face the class while writing have been supplied by the local authority; and the detailed lesson plans, drawn up by advisory teachers using continental textbooks as a basis, come free.

"Our textbooks are deficient in that they do not take you through things step by step," Mr Last says. "There are insufficient examples to allow children to consolidate what they have learnt, and they do not lend themselves to oral work."

Oral work takes up two-thirds of project lessons, and children are asked to come up to the front to explain a maths problem to the rest of the class. This can be a great confidence-booster, Mr Garton says, especially for children like his, many of whom come from deprived homes. "Having to spell out what they are doing helps them to come to terms with it and learn it. It is also very clear if someone doesn't really understand something, and you can then give them extra help."

One of the principal aims of this approach, then, is to lift all children up to a minimum standard - with no stragglers. But if Mr Last has one criticism of the teaching he has seen in Germany, it is that sometimes the more advanced children are insufficiently challenged. This, however, can be remedied by asking them more demanding questions, and by giving them more taxing worksheets.

As for the teachers, there has been a generally enthusiastic response so far. Some have been taken to schools in Switzerland and Germany to see the continental methods in action, and all receive half a day's training at the beginning and end of each five-week block. The lesson plans can seem prescriptive at first, but teachers are encouraged to adapt them according to their own needs and styles.

"Although the lesson is set out for you, the demands on the teacher are still quite high," Mr Garton says. "I am not used to standing in front of a class doing oral work for a long time, and it is quite tiring. The children are not easy to teach, and you have to work hard to keep their attention."

There are, it is true, occasional lapses in concentration during his lesson, but on the whole the class is alert and attentive, and, afterwards, full of enthusiasm for what they are doing.

"I like holding up the cards at the beginning best," says Jemer, 10. "It helps you to learn."

"I like writing things on the projector," says Louis. "It's fun and sometimes people help you and tell you what to do."

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