‘There were five frogs on a log and one jumps off,’ sings theemeny reports. accountant, to a class of 22 five to seven-year-olds, huddled at the back of a classroom.
Five of them are crouched down on the floor. These ‘frogs’ are excited about their privileged position, and more than one tries to bounce away from the group before being ordered back.
The accountant, PricewaterhouseCooper’s Manchester business recovery client service manager Jeffrey Taylor, is in charge of the pen for the whiteboard and, as another frog jumps into the ‘pond’, one of the other children is encouraged to write up the song in the form of addition.
The song is only the last few minutes of a twice-weekly class at St Edward’s Primary School in Castleton, Lancashire where Year 1 children, and some with special needs from Year 2, join together in a new approach to teaching maths which is so far showing encouraging results.
Earlier in the lesson, they were sitting in groups of five to use ‘Mr Ten sticks’ and building blocks, to learn their times tables, before moving to the front of the class to count the rungs of a ladder drawn on the blackboard by teacher Lesley Dawson. As she asks her class for volunteers to recite the two-times table, Taylor sits quietly at the back to both encourage response and calm any restless individuals who might be losing concentration.
‘I do not do any of the teaching,’ he explains. ‘My role is to support the teacher because in a normal class of 28, they have less than two minutes per pupil, but with two of us that time is doubled.’ And Taylor provides welcome assistance to Dawson – her class is mixed ability, and he can help those having difficulties keep up.
Taylor is not the only member of the profession to offer their time to help tomorrow’s workforce overcome what is perceived to be a fundamental lack of basic mathematics. He is part of a nationwide trial involving 30 members of staff testing a new way of teaching maths in both primary and secondary schools, co-ordinated by the Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching at the University of Exeter, and directed by Professor David Burghes.
The programme predates an English ICA initiative – to be launched later this year – which will encourage accountants to play a role in community activities and maths teaching.
The professor, who has been involved in the practical aspects of teaching mathematics for many years, got involved in what started life as the Kassel Project in 1993 – testing 13-year-old pupils in England, Scotland and Germany.
The project was funded initially using money from bodies including the British Council. Following three years’ research, the suggestions were put into practice in a number of schools in England and Wales as part of the Mathematics Enhancement Programme.
Professor Burghes comments: ‘What we are trying to do is return to the time when teachers actually led the class using methods derived from countries with high attainment levels, such as Hungary, and combined with whole-class application teaching.’
In the meantime, the then Coopers & Lybrand had been conducting its own research at community level to find out where help was needed to regenerate deprived areas and assist those with disadvantaged backgrounds to find employment.
PwC director of community affairs Clare Gardner explains: ‘We found that there was a need to support numeracy while it was also an area which was not heavily sponsored by other corporates. We decided to get involved in MEP just before the change of government. Labour has now picked this up, and we are linked to a government taskforce.’
PwC manager for the department, Kate Pilgrim, adds that the firm has worked very closely with professor Burghes in implementing the primary school part of MEP – which was launched in 1996 following the success of the earlier secondary school project. Employees were canvassed to find out the level of support for fielding volunteers. Those who showed an interest were then carefully briefed following liaison between the firm and schools.
Gardner says: ‘MEP was a legacy Coopers & Lybrand project that fits very well with the merged firm. We have just been doing a pilot year, and once we have a chance to evaluate the past year, we will be looking to increase our involvement in the project over the next academic year.’
Taylor, a former bank manager, says he first heard about PwC’s involvement in 1997, when staff were asked to register their interest. His voluntary work started in September last year. ‘I have two children of my own and I think they are quite good at maths because we do mental arithmetic all the time.
‘When I listened to professor Burghes, I heard that that was not the general case and what fascinated me was the apparent lack of numeracy skills,’ he says. He is delighted to be a volunteer at St Edward’s, where he says that teachers stick to the programme as rigidly as they can. ‘It is invigorating to see the students change,’ he says.
Rebecca Knott is the maths co-ordinator and MEP liaison at the school.
She says that programme guidelines are very specific, with five minutes to be given to quick-fire oral, followed by 15 to 20 minutes’ work from the blackboard, with a particular teaching point in mind. There should then be a further 20 minutes of written work, before a final few minutes which pull the lesson together at the end. She says: ‘I used to start with a bit of oral work and then set them on their own written work for about 40 minutes, but MEP takes the emphasis off written work in order to keep up the pace and get the children to work things out more quickly.’
Her only complaint is that the teaching plans emphasise seating arrangements – either facing the board in rows or in a horseshoe shape, or desks together for group activity, which she says makes it very difficult because it means individual teachers having to move desks around – especially hard when combined with the similarly strict teaching plans for Literacy Hour. What she asks teachers instead is to do as much as they can and concentrate on teaching the philosophy of maths rather than worrying about moving desks.
Professor Burghes is aware that not all schools can follow the seating plans as rigidly as MEP suggests and says he is keen for them to try as hard as possible to keep to the programme. The practical lessons learned from the programme are being integrated into next year’s arrangements.
Seating plans aside, all those involved in MEP are confident the structure will yield results and PwC is already keen to expand the number of volunteers it provides.
Taylor knows that MEP works. He is adamant that this style of interactive teaching makes it far more difficult for a child who does not know the answer to hide. And of course: ‘It is a fact of life that they could grow up with us in mind,’ he says.
WHAT IS BEHIND THE MEP?
Place a child in front of a computer and they can fax, email and surf the Internet. Ask them a simple mathematics question and, according to government, academics, teachers and parents alike, they are likely to try to reach for a calculator, being unable to cope alone.
The Maths Enhancement Programme began in 1993 as a limited project in England, Scotland and Germany, monitoring the maths progress of pupils in similar ability groups with the ultimate aim of making suggestions to establish best practice. The following year, the project was extended to include other countries such as Brazil, Finland, Hungary, Japan, Poland, the US and Thailand. Students in Russia and Ukraine joined later with international funding provided by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation with donations from British Steel, Esso and the Post Office.
Several tests were used within each country to establish ability including a ‘potential test’, taken once by every pupil at the start of their participation, followed by an ‘attainment test’. Questionnaires were also used to collect information about the students, teachers, school and countries.
This data has been the driving force behind the MEP which is trying to reshape the way maths is taught in primary and secondary schools to increase the emphasis on practical numeracy through more whole-class teaching.
At present, 94 schools in England and Wales are taking part in the MEP teaching philosophy which is based on the Hungarian interactive teaching style, where it has proven to be a positive influence on attainment.
University of Exeter professor David Burghes, who oversees the co-ordination of MEP, says: ‘This is a return to teachers teaching based on sound research. We don’t want to extend the programme too fast too soon but we are pleased that most teachers are open-minded and we were delighted to find that PwC wanted to be involved.’
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