Education: Maths with a fraction of the heartache

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The Independent Online
IN THE staffroom of St Ann's primary school, Tottenham, north London, Graham Taylor, a maths specialist, is showing fellow teachers some workbooks chosen from his class of nine-year-olds. Can anyone guess, he asks, which child had most teacher-time in maths and which had least? The reply is unanimous.

Mr Taylor recalls: 'Everybody immediately knew that I had spent the least time with the child who had done the best work, and the most time with the child who had done the weakest work. So then I asked, if the able child could achieve this with the least input, what could they achieve if we focused some attention on them?'

It was a hard question for St Ann's, in the shadow of the Broadwater Farm Estate, with a third of its pupils from single-parent families and 85 per cent from ethnic minorities. The school has prided itself on calming disturbed children, boosting backward language skills and sending out all 11-year-olds as fluent readers.

'We realised we'd neglected the maths and our high- flyers,' Nesta Murray, the headteacher, says. 'At the same time we felt terribly guilty about concentrating on the bright ones.'

The spur for St Ann's to look at maths came from the 1992 seven-year-old Sats test results. Not only did the children do much worse in maths than in English and science, but some also were so unsettled by mental arithmetic against the clock that they burst into tears. When the school joined the Institute of Education's school improvement programme, teachers were asked to identify groups in the school that needed more attention. All said a handful in every class were bored and coasting.

Nevertheless, it took three emotional meetings before the staff agreed to focus on extending the maths skills of the six ablest children in each class, while other children worked alone. In pairs, they planned a fortnight's special activities for what became known as the 'pilot' group, in which they would have undivided teacher attention for 15 minutes, three times a week.

Institute staff encouraged Mr Taylor and Margaret Coleman, the deputy head, to run maths workshops to give the other teachers more confidence in teaching the subject. They pushed for minuted staff meetings, so all teachers were committed to decisions, and for joint planning by teachers not only to extend their ablest pupils, but - eventually in a new school behaviour policy - to also ensure children did not interrupt the special sessions.

It took a year, during which, Mrs Murray says, it sometimes seemed nothing would change at all. But by last summer's Sats, pupils were more confident and capable in maths: no tears this time. Children from the middle group were working harder to keep up with the high-flyers, behaviour was calmer and teacher morale higher.

Mrs Taylor says St Ann's is now a better school: 'I think it's got the ethos going for everybody that we are really striving for high standards here.'

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