Plan to cure fear of maths at school

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TEACHERS SHOULD organise desks in a U-shape and sing Five Little Speckled Frogs with their five-year-olds, according to new government guidelines on how to teach maths.

More mental arithmetic and fewer calculators form the centrepiece of plans to banish the fear of maths and turn Britain into a more numerate nation. From September, a new daily numeracy hour will be introduced in primary schools.

The 117-page guidance represents the most detailed government advice ever sent to schools on maths teaching methods. Even the furniture arrangement is important: it proposes placing desks in a U-shape with the weakest children sitting in the centre of the U.

The guidelines suggest that four and five-year-olds in reception classes might sing Five Little Speckled Frogs before counting frogs and lily pads in the sand and water trays.

The document says teachers should spend the first 5 or 10 minutes of the numeracy hour on oral work and mental arithmetic - during which they might play number games - the next 30 or 40 minutes on a new topic or practising an old one, and the last 10 to 15 summing up to the whole class.

During the mental arithmetic sessions pupils might play agame in which they are asked to give examples of a number one less than a multiple of five, or a calculation with the answer 12. They should have the skills to work out different ways of answering questions such as 81 minus 26, or 5 per cent of pounds 3,000.

Calculators, the document says, should not normally be used for under- eights, but older children should be taught how best to use these "powerful and efficient tools".

The guidelines advise teachers to spend as much time as possible teaching and questioning the whole class instead of dividing it into groups.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, told a conference in London yesterday: "Too many people in Britain say with almost a badge of pride that they never did understand maths properly. Yet it is essential in everyday life and to the life of our economy. Dealing with figures should be just as important as the ability to read, yet maths is sometimes the poor relation. We want to promote a `can-do' attitude towards maths across the community."

Tony Blair announced that next year would be Maths Year 2000, and Carol Vorderman, the mental arithmetic expert from Channel 4's Countdown programme has agreed to give the initiative her backing.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said that "in principle the maths hour represents sound educational practice" but warned against over-prescription.

"Schools already succeeding should not be compelled to turn their maths teaching upside-down to accommodate the bureaucrats at the Department for Education and Employment," he said.