Minus for maths

Why are standards slipping in some areas? Ofsted is sending inspectors to find out
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The Independent Online
The mathematical skills of English schoolchildren have taken a double drubbing this week. On Monday, maths test results for 11-year-olds, although better than last year, found that just over half reached the expected standard for their age, and today international comparisons show our teenagers sliding down the maths performance pole.

Six years ago, English 13-year-olds were 3 per cent above the world average. Today's study finds them 2 per cent below and 19th out of 29 broadly comparable countries in maths. In a group of nine industrialised countries we were bottom of the tests in algebra and number.

Most experts blame the teaching methods which have been prevalent in recent years - little whole-class teaching and lots of reliance on commercial maths schemes worked on individually by pupils - for our decline. Certainly, by international comparison, we are doing much better in science (coming sixth out of 27 countries), which is taught rather differently.

Others blame the national curriculum for marginalising subjects such as algebra, others say the international comparisons test knowledge that has little practical application and that our youngsters are better able to use the maths they know in everyday life than their European counterparts.

But according to the Office for Standards in Education, standards in one in six primary schools are unacceptably low. Ofsted is sending inspectors into three local authority areas, Knowsley, Greenwich and Newham, in east London, to discover why standards in some schools are so low.

The areas have been chosen because of their poor overall results in the national curriculum maths tests at seven and 11 years. In each area, 15 schools of varying success rates have been selected for visits by the Ofsted inspectors. The local authorities and the staff of the schools involved are nervous of the survey. A similar one last year on reading standards in the inner cities found that 80 per cent of six- and seven- year-olds in the schools surveyed had reading ages well below their chronological age and was critical of teaching methods. There are fears that this maths survey may also prove to be a "hatchet job" by Ofsted on standards in the inner cities.

Keith Lloyd, a former headteacher and HMI inspector for 11 years, who started his teaching career in Knowsley, is heading the numeracy survey. "The real purpose of the exercise is to highlight the difficulties faced by schools in disadvantaged areas, analyse the needs of children and gain evidence of how schools are coping," he says. "This whole exercise is focusing on the teaching of numbers. A worrying proportion of schools are failing in this area.

"There's an increasing focus in this country on literacy and numeracy - we recognise they are the building blocks of everything else in education, and if they aren't taught successfully then everything else will fall"n

The successful school

Sylvester Primary School is situated in the largely working-class area of Huyton, in the Knowsley district of Liverpool. It is a success story: 95 per cent of six- and seven-year-old pupils are achieving the national average or above in maths tests taken at age seven, despite the economic backgrounds of most of its pupils. Half receive free school meals; 60 per cent get a clothing allowance. At 11 years old, 26 per cent of pupils reach level five in national tests, the average expected of 13- year-olds. The national average is seven per cent.

Keith Lloyd, head of Ofsted's Primary and Nursery Team, is doing the maths inspection at Knowsley. He did his first teaching practice in a school down the road. "I have a great deal of respect for the schools in this part of the city," he says. "I know the problems they face and the amount of good teaching that goes on against the odds."

A former headteacher, and an HMI inspector for 11 years, he is heading the numeracy survey, and made a special effort to carry out the inspection in his old stamping-ground. He has been observing classes of seven- and 11-year-olds. Perched on a tiny chair, he is looking carefully at the way the children are being taught, as well as what they're being taught. For many children, maths has become a dry, dusty subject as they toil away alone in a maths scheme book, with little real teaching going on.

Sylvester Primary does not rely solely on commercial schemes. Tony Halpin, the head, explains that teachers pick and dip into different textbooks. The school has its own detailed written "scheme" for every subject and every year group. "I think that's at the centre of our success," he says.

Julie Clayton, one of the class teacher's under Ofsted microscope , explains: ""I think what's vital is to set the children clear targets, and make sure all of them know at the beginning of the lesson what they're going to do so there's no uncertainty.

"If they're not enjoying it or there's not the understanding there then that's a criticism of my work. It's so important to give them time now because otherwise they feel lost and confused and that negativity will carry on into secondary school where they don't get the one-to-one attention"n

What the inspector saw

"Now, who can remind me what we were doing in the last lesson?" asks year two teacher Julie Clayton. "Multiplication in twos, Miss," pipes the broad Liverpudlian voice of seven-year-old Jamie.

"Why do we count in twos and fives? Is it going to help us later on when we do our times tables?" "Yes, Miss," roars back the class.

On the blackboard is a "number pattern" of multiples of fives with gaps of missing numbers.

"Five - what's the next number going to be? What would we write in our space, Katie? Now, let's go through them, and I'm going to talk very quietly so I can listen to your big voices."

The whole class is sitting on the floor at the front. Enthusiastically, happily and very loudly they count in fives up to 100, then back they go to their tables. With much finger-counting, and furrowed brows, they carefully write out the number patterns of fives in their own books. For five minutes peace reigns, while Julie moves from child to child, checking for problems. A group of six children with special needs work at a slower pace with a classroom assistant in the corner.

"Stop!" After eight minutes Julie calls a halt. Time for a game involving brightly coloured cubes. "Turn your chairs now to face me and put your hands on your knees so I know you're listening. Michael, stop that. Now the first thing you need is a friend, so I need a friend to help me play this game. Who should I ask? Elizabeth - you're sitting beautifully there; would you like to be my friend?"

All the children pair up, to grab big handfuls of cubes and count them into fives as quickly as possible. "What do we call those left over?" "The remainder!" they chorus, enthusiastic and involved.

"Time for the one-minute game!" From working in pairs on the cubes, it's back to whole-class teaching for the end of the lesson. "Last week we got to a hundred. Can we do better?" A chorus of nodding heads. "One, two, three, go!" Twenty-six children fall over themselves to count in fives as fast as possible. At the end of a minute, 140 is reached.

"Brilliant!" shouts Julie. "All pat yourselves on the back." Twenty-six children contort themselves on their small wooden chairs to give themselves a good patting. Lesson over