A maths movement: How one teacher made numbers count

An improvement in the inner-London borough's GCSE mathematics grades is largely down to one man. Steve McCormack discovers how Gerald Cort – a seasoned teacher from the independent sector – made the figures add up
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It's the beginning of the day at Haggerston Girls comprehensive school in Hackney, and a class of 13-year-olds is filing into maths teacher Ala Mohamad's fourth-floor room. The young faces reflect family backgrounds from across the world, mirroring the racial mix that makes up this corner of east London.

Although the school exudes calm, and the neat, colourful displays adorning the classroom bear testament to the learning that goes on here, the urban landscape outside hints at a harsh environment. Council tower blocks sit amid a sea of concrete. There are few people about, the sparsely stocked shops attracting only a trickle of custom. Schools in this kind of neighbourhood spend as much time dealing with pupils' social problems as they do on education.

So, when Gerald Cort arrives in the room to start the lesson, he appears as if from another planet, in his bow tie and smart jacket, greeting the class with what they would call a posh accent. But far from being an interloper here, Cort is well known at Haggerston, as he is at each of the eight other comprehensives in Hackney. In fact Cort, who has spent the majority of his 40-year teaching career in private schools, most recently at the highly rated City of London boys' school a mile south of here, is the key figure behind a marked improvement in maths achievement across the state schools in Hackney.

For the past six years, Cort has been seconded by the City of London Corporation, which owns and runs City of London School for Boys, to work in Hackney's comprehensives, concentrating largely on classes where pupils are either achieving way below their potential, or are completely turned off maths as a subject. His main weapon has been a method of teaching that he has devised over the years, and which he calls Power Maths. It mixes his own traditional teaching approach – addressing the whole class from the front of the room– with as much use as possible of IT.

"What he was doing was cutting edge when he started in Hackney schools," explains Debbie Price, maths consultant for Hackney education authority, now run by a body called the Learning Trust. "It forced the teachers to think about using IT in maths, and how to make lessons more interactive."

Since Cort became involved in Hackney, maths performance at all schools has improved steadily. At Haggerston, the number of pupils getting a grade C or better in GCSE maths has risen from 26 percent to over 45 per cent. Across the borough, about 50 per cent of 16-year-olds got C or above in maths this year, which is a rise of more than 6 per cent since 2005.

More anecdotally, schools have reported that, exposed to Cort's methods, fewer pupils have lost interest in maths at a crucial phase of their teenage years.

His approach in the classroom, while no longer revolutionary, still appears to work with today's group of girls. The lesson is about mathematical probability, and he's getting the class to discuss the probability, in numerical terms, of a range of events: Big Ben not striking midnight tonight; there being some rain in England next April; and a majority of the class watching EastEnders once this week.

These scenarios, which come with photographs, are represented on the electronic board at the front of the class, each with a blank box ready to be filled in with a number. (Probabilities can be represented with decimals, or fractions, between 0 and 1, and sometimes with percentages between 0 and 100.)

But rather than filling the numbers in himself, Cort passes a keyboard, wirelessly linked to the computer controlling the whiteboard, out into the body of the class.

The first girl to receive it stands up, points it at the board, and, with the whole class watching the cursor go on its travels, starts to fill in one of the boxes. As the keyboard is handed round to other girls, Cort draws out comments from the pupils, either supporting or taking issue with the numbers appearing in the boxes.

"The essence of Power Maths is the live application of IT in the classroom," Cort explains after the lesson. "It is not just playing videos or displaying what's on a CD-Rom. The children have to be involved in the lesson by participating."

This is a conclusion endorsed by Amara as she packs up her books at the end of the lesson. "He lets everyone take part in lessons," she says. "It's not usually like this. Normally we just work from text books."

Her friend Farzana is similarly enthusiastic about Cort's approach. "Even if we don't understand it, he explains it well," she says.

But far from setting himself up as superior to, or in competition with, Hackney's permanent maths teachers, Cort works alongside them, and shares all his prepared resources, particularly the lessons with electronic whiteboard-based, interactive elements.

Ala Mohamad, who's taught maths at Haggerston for five years, has nothing but praise for the way Cort has helped her with today's class. "Gerald has been a great help," she says. "They get very excited about his lessons, especially when they are using the keyboard."

Today she also expresses pleasant surprise at how the girls cope with the fast pace of the probability lesson. "I was so shocked. They were really coming up with the answers."

For the past six years, Cort has spread himself around Hackney's eight comprehensives, usually working in three at any one time. In each school, he's shared a few classes with their "normal" teachers, teaching each class perhaps once a week.

In addition, Cort has organised targeted extra lessons for 15- and 16-year-olds from across the borough in their GCSE year. These have taken two forms: a weekly after-school lesson lasting 14 weeks for capable but under-achieving pupils who should be aiming for the highest grades at GCSE; and a four-day Easter crash course for middle-ability students in danger of slipping beneath the grade C threshold, considered a minimum for entry to the majority of further education college courses and demanded by employers in most job sectors.

These courses have proved both popular and successful, with between 200 to 300 students attending each year, and well over three quarters of them going on to achieve or exceed the GCSE grades predicted by their class teachers.

"For us as a borough, Power Maths has really come into its own with this series of after-school classes," says Price.

Cort accepts that the use of IT he championed a few years ago has now become widespread across most schools, but he retains his faith in its power to tempt disengaged students back into maths, and in his own idiosyncratic approach.

"It's not that I am any better than their usual teachers. It's just that I have had the element of surprise. When I arrive in a classroom with my bow tie it gives me the crucial time at the start of the lesson to get something going that I know they'll enjoy."

And Price confirms there have been numerous occasions where Cort has had a transforming effect on a classroom full of otherwise bored teenagers.

"He's really passionate about maths and it does rub off on students," she says.

Even though Cort's time in Hackney has coincided with admirable improvements, the fact remains that the borough remains home to low levels of academic achievement. It still languishes in the bottom 25 per cent of boroughs nationwide for GCSE attainment.

The contrast with Cort's former place of work, City of London School, nestling just down the road from Haggerston, in close proximity to the banks and finance houses of the City, could not be more marked. Here, 100 per cent of pupils usually pass the grade C mark in maths, as well as fistfuls of other subjects.

These divergent educational outcomes, among children growing up as near neighbours, are partly what prompted the City of London Corporation to fund Cort's work in Hackney.

"We are well aware that a grade C at maths GCSE is a prerequisite for entry to even the first rung on the employment ladder in the City," says David Pack, the corporation's partnership manager. "The support for Gerald Cort fits with our wider programme of activities to try to raise the aspirations and attainment of children going to schools on the fringes of the City."

The corporation's other projects aimed at pupils in neighbouring boroughs include providing three-month training placements with city employers for some local school leavers, giving careers guidance for younger teenagers, including a day-long work-experience visit to a city firm for 1,000 pupils a year, and contributing to the government's Teach First scheme, which channels the best graduates to work as teachers for two years in some of the toughest inner London schools.