A Critical Analysis of the National Numeracy Strat

The National Numeracy Strategy was implemented in September 1999, setting a target for 75% of all pupils reaching at least level four in mathematics by 2002.   This essay will focus on the findings since the implementation of the strategy for both pupils and teachers. In order to do this I will examine the Numeracy Strategy Framework guidelines, which state how the teaching of mathematics should be carried out in primary education and evaluate some of the main criticisms since the implementation.

Since the implementation of the Numeracy Strategy, a maths lesson should occur on a daily basis in every class from reception to year six. According to the Framework of the Strategy, each lesson should last for about forty minutes in Key Stage 1 and fifty to sixty minutes in Key Stage 2.  The lesson should consist of as much time as possible in direct teaching and questioning of the whole class. The focus for teaching should be high-quality direct teaching, rather than drill and practice lecturing, asking children questions and encouraging them to share their answers and methods with the whole class.  Greater emphasis is placed on effective teaching by the teacher, rather than children learning by themselves from exercise books.

The Framework states that a typical lesson will consist of oral work and mental calculation with the whole class for the first five to ten minutes of the lesson.  This is seen as a warm up to motivate the children to practice and sharpen mental and oral skills, in preparation for the main teaching activity. It is suggested that the teacher should maintain a brisk pace, providing varied oral and mental activities throughout each week.  Teachers should ensure that each child can see the teacher easily and interruptions should be avoided, encouraging all pupils to participate in the discussion. Teachers should avoid running over time, in order to move on to the next stage of the lesson.

The next stage will last between thirty and forty minutes, where the exercise will include teaching input and pupil activities either as a whole class, in groups, pairs or individuals.  The teacher should make clear to the class what they will learn, tell them what they are expected to do, how long it should take and what they need to prepare for the plenary session, which is the last stage of the lesson. Groups sizes should be manageable consisting of around four pupils.  The teacher should work intensively with one or two groups, rather than trying to spend time with all the children, making use of classroom assistants and adult helpers to assist with the rest of the class. When working with individuals or pairs, teachers need to ensure that the rest of the class is working on related tasks and exercises.

The last stage of the lesson consists of a plenary session, which lasts between ten to fifteen minutes and brings the whole class together in order to summarise what they have learnt. This stage of the lesson should be a time to sort out any problems that children may have had, make links with other work and to set homework.

Some plenary sessions may last longer than others depending on the outcomes for e.g. more time may be needed for explanation and discussion to identify errors and misunderstandings. It is important to iron out any problems at this stage before moving onto another task.

Although this is just a brief description of a typical lesson from the Framework guidelines of the Numeracy Strategy, it is clear that the importance of mathematics is stressed over and over again. This is evident where the Framework continually stresses the importance of linking mathematics wherever possible.  The Framework suggests that children should identify between mathematics and other subject areas for e.g. in geography map reading will require calculations of measures and angles etc. Teachers are encouraged to bring to the attention of their pupils where these links can be made. Links with mathematics and out of school activities and homework are encouraged, wherever possible.  A child might be asked to count the money in his or her wallet at home, or weigh something on the kitchen scales. Even physical education is noted as a link for the practice of heights and weights to be implemented.

In one speech by Chris Woodhead he states that:

I cannot overestimate the importance of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies in raising standards of Literacy and mathematics in our primary schools  the fundamental prerequisite for raising educational standards generally.  1.
www.ofsted.gov.uk/about/press/nr2000-74.htm, (04.01.01)

The Framework suggests that teachers should put greater emphasis on mental calculations, rather than written work.  Mental skill needs to be acquired first so that the child can observe numbers mentally and understand what they mean before writing them in the traditional way.  The teacher will then be aware that the child fully understands what is being asked and can share his or her methods with the rest of the class, thus encouraging individual thinking.

The teacher can also assess a child more readily knowing whether the child understands the concept of the task. This attitude breaks away from the more traditional methods of teaching whereby a child would be shown and expected to learn one method. The problem with this is that the child may not understand the method and a different one might be more suitable to that particular child.

This emphasis on mental calculation is supported in a report by Mike Askew entitled, Effective Teachers of Numeracy in Primary Schools.  The project explored the beliefs of highly effective teachers.  It states those highly effective teachers

Used pupils descriptions of their methods and their reasoning to help establish and emphasise connections and address misconceptions. And particularly emphasised the development of mental skills. Pupils develop strategies and networks of ideas by being challenged to think, through explaining, listening and problem solving. 2. Primary Practice (15.05.98)
The Numeracy Strategy can be seen as a positive approach in developing pupils mathematical ability as it has opened up a new and more exciting way of teaching mathematics both for the pupil and the teacher.  Compared to years of traditional teaching methods, which have relied heavily on pupils copying from the blackboard and textbooks, the Strategy has shown some successful results in the relatively short time it has been in practice.  OFSTEDs report in the first full year of the Strategy states that

The three-part daily mathematics lesson is having a profound effect on the way maths is taught in primary schools.  Pupils have shown the greatest improvements in their oral and mental skills, particularly in number.  Their response to their mathematics teaching has been good or very good in over three-quarters of lessons. 3.
www.ofsted.gov.uk/about/press/nr2000-74.htm (04.01.01)

This improvement is also noted within the special schools sector.  One news release from OFSTED reported that Teachers in special schools report a marked improvement in pupils concentration, behaviour and attitudes to study. 4.
www.ofsted.gov.uk/about/press/nr2000-80.htm (04.01.01)

The figures from the report suggest that even at this early stage in the project there is a marked improvement, not only with regards to pupils results but also to the standard of teaching by teachers.  The report states that

The quality of teaching has improved over the year with the best teaching found in year 6 and reception.  The energy, determination and skill with which year 6 teachers have approached the need to raise standards should not be underestimated. 5.
www.ofsted.gov.uk/about/press/nr2000-74.htm (04.01.01)

However it seems that one of the main criticisms of the Strategy is that other subject areas within the National Curriculum may be suffering. This may be due to too much emphasis being placed on the teaching of Mathematics and English and not allowing enough time to focus on other subjects for e.g. geography, history and art. As noted by one educational journalist, Diane Hofkins

Some teachers are spending too much time on Literacy and Numeracy lessons, often occupying more than one hour with no corresponding gains in what is being achieved It is important that schools are disciplined in their use of time for mathematics and English in order not to erode the rest of the curriculum. 6.
www.tesprimary.co.uk/digest/strategies.asp (04.01.01)

Furthermore Geraldine Hackett in Numeracy not without cost, states More than 80 per cent of schools report they are spending far less time on the humanities, art and physical education. 7.
www.tes.co.uk/tp/900000/20001006/N (10.10.00)

However, teaching methods that have been adopted due to the implementation of the Strategy are concerned with providing as stimulating an environment as possible for the pupils.  Due to this it has been noted that, other subject areas do in fact benefit from the implementation of the strategy.  This is due to these methods of teaching being used to focus not just within the National Numeracy and Literacy Strategies but with other curriculum core subjects.  OFSTED report that Teachers have adapted their techniques, bringing clearer focus lessons. 8.
www.tesprimary.co.uk/digest/strategies.asp (04.01.01)

It seems that a balance needs to be adopted within the teaching timetable in order for the whole Curriculum to be successful. Too much time spent on the teaching of  Numeracy and Literacy will no doubt cause problems within other subject areas.  However by adopting more stimulating teaching methods throughout the whole curriculum, will no doubt produce good results all round.  Due to both Numeracy and Literacy being areas that link in with so many other subjects, as already stated, there should be no need to spend extra sessions solely in these areas, thus allowing time to teach the rest of the curriculum.  Therefore it seems that it is the responsibility of each individual school to ensure that this is carried out successfully. According to OFSTED the most common weakness within one in five schools was that of

Headteachers taking a back seat and delegating too much to co-ordinators, including in some cases sole responsibility for monitoring and evaluating teachers. 9.
www.osted.gov.uk/about/press/nr2000-74.htm (04.01.01)

There has also been some concern with lower achievers who may need extra support.  The one-hour numeracy session does not allow specific time for these children to catch up.  If the Framework guidelines are followed too rigidly by concentrating on one task and then moving on to another the next day, then there will always be those pupils who have not grasped the concept of the task within the time allocated.  The Framework suggests that whilst the teacher may be working intensively with individuals or groups during the main teaching activity, this does not allocate sufficient time for the teacher to spend with those children that continually have difficulty.  One researcher Debra Myhill noted that The whole-class teaching of the Literacy and Numeracy strategies fails to involve under-achieving pupils. 10.
Primary Practice, (26.09.00)

Although this method of teaching does enable the teacher to assess the children more readily, time needs to be allocated in order to follow up the findings of this assessment with future planning, which may involve additional lessons in particular areas of mathematics.

It is stated by Sue Atkinson in Ability groups- the pros and cons that One of the main purposes of the National Numeracy Strategy is to bring up the level of the children who are below average. 11.
Primary Maths and Science (January 2000)

Some critics argue that due to the Strategys targets, teachers will concentrate on the higher-achievers and the less able will fall further and further behind the rest of the class.
It states in an article by Wright, Martland and Stafford, that

There is a danger already apparent in the educational press, that schools will concentrate on the children who are likely to attain the desired level. Opposing views are also evident; giving warnings that struggling pupils will fall still further behind thus increasing the danger of social exclusion. 12.
Primary Practice (26.09.00)

Furthermore they argue that with regards to the Numeracy Strategy

The approach described may well raise standards overall but it does not give sufficient detail, nor provide the less confident teacher with support firmly grounded in theory, to help the less able children. 13.
Primary Practice (26.09.00)

However it seems that extra support should be provided at home with the help of parents.  It is suggested in the Framework that parents should be invited to the school to see exactly what the Numeracy Strategy involves, enabling them to support their childrens learning at home.  Schools need to support parents in order for them to help and encourage their children with their learning.  Support from both teachers and parents is essential if a child is to get the most out of the Strategy.

The overall results since the implementation of the strategy are more encouraging with the strategys impact on pupils attainment at both key stage 1 and 2.  The proportion of pupils at key stage 1 attaining level 2B or higher rose by nine percentage points to 73% in 2000.  Further more at the end of key stage 2 a rise by three percentage points in children reaching level four or above consolidated the previous years big rise to 72%, which is just three points below the Governments national target for year 6 pupils by 2002. 14.
www.ofsted.fov.uk/about/press/nr2000-74.htm (04.01.01)

This does in fact prove that the majority of schools are managing to implement the Strategy successfully.  The main concerns seem to be that in order for the Strategy to be successful the standard of teaching needs to be highly effective.  This involves the beliefs of teachers, which need to move away from the old traditional methods of teaching and promote as stimulating environment as possible for the pupils. There needs to be more emphasis on lower achievers so that they do not fall behind and parents need to be kept informed of their childs progress in order to assist with their learning at home. Children that have particular difficulty in mathematics need to be assessed straight away, in order to plan future exercises that ensure that they do not fall behind.

It is also important that links are made between mathematics and other curriculum core subjects so that children are aware that mathematics is not an abstract subject but that it can and does in fact relate to the real world. This does not mean that the rest of the curriculum should be disrupted in order to teach mathematics but that simple links should be highlighted.  If this is carried out successfully then the whole curriculum should be manageable and other subject areas should not suffer as critics have pointed out.

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