Sums + sport = pupils happy to do maths

Stars who will be backing the lessons include some of the biggest names in football such as Theo Walcott, the England and Arsenal player.

Gabby Logan, the television presenter, will help to launch a national advertising campaign. The first spot will feature footballers in schools. The aim is that the free lessons will be taught in every primary school in England by 2022.

Football clubs such as Everton already sponsor free schools and most clubs run literacy and numeracy programmes in their community.

Riley is not only an Oxford maths graduate but also presents football programmes on Sky Sports. Speaking at a pre-launch event at a north London school, Riley, a Manchester United fan, said she believed the key to creating maths stars was to make the subject fun to learn.

“My personal point of view is: do not put people off. Make it fun. I was one of the lucky ones who liked maths. I went on to study it at university,” she said.

“Numeracy for kids and adults is an issue. The reason I like these activities instead of exams is because in real life we are never under exam conditions.”

Children kick balls, do star jumps and play sport to collect data for calculations

Riley said parents should relate maths as much as possible to the real world, letting children calculate how much change they should get when out shopping or working out how much time a journey would take in the car. “Maths is about finding a way to solve a problem,” she said.

“The most difficult thing about Countdown was realising I would not get all [the answers] right all the time. You have to learn you have only 30 seconds. You can try only a few different routes in that 30 seconds. [You are] not always going to be at the top of your game.”

Active learning has become popular in recent years. One of the first experiments was at Monkseaton High School, Tyneside, where children learnt at their desks mixed with eight-minute bursts of basketball. Based on the latest neuroscientific studies, short sharp lessons interspersed with physical activity are more effective at embedding learning, researchers found.

The lessons are different from the drilling and rote practice of Far Eastern countries such as Singapore and South Korea, which top international league tables in maths exams.

Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University said English pupils needed help with the subject but he was not convinced that the effect would be transformative.

“Britain’s performance at maths is pretty woeful. A lot of young people are not turned on to the subject,” he said.

“This [scheme] could motivate young boys but maths does need to be taught with a lot of practice. If lessons are just a matter of kicking balls about they may be fun but may not lead to much improvement.”

Riley also admitted that the emphasis some government ministers had placed on drilling and repetitive practice had some merit: “I had to go back and learn my times tables for Countdown. That repetitive practice gets it in there. When I was appointed to the job I bought the Countdown puzzle books and played them over and over, spotting more and more patterns.”

In another attempt to popularise maths, Riley revealed that she would be keen to see a junior version of Countdown where the contestants were schoolchildren.