Education: Class war declared on calculators

Maths task force stands up for mental arithmetic while schools minister falls down on his sums
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Calculators should not be introduced in primary schools until the age of eight, the head of the Government's numeracy task force said yesterday. But, as Judith Judd, Education Editor, finds, the dispute about the role of calculators is far from over.

Children under eight should be expected to do most sums in their heads, Professor David Reynolds of Newcastle University, the task force head, said. They should use neither pencil and paper nor calculators.

On most issues, Professor Reynolds has succeeded in producing a report which satisfies the warring factions which have been at odds over maths for more than 30 years.

On calculators, however, the report, which recommends more emphasis on mental arithmetic and whole-class teaching, is non-committal.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, said before the election that he wanted to bar calculators for the youngest children.

But yesterday he made clear that debate about the right age to introduce calculators is continuing. He has asked his curriculum advisers to produce further guidance.

"At the time when they transfer to secondary school, children need to know when to use a calculator. They should not have to use them in the early years as a substitute for sums." He suggested that the brightest pupils who were very good at mental arithmetic would be ready to use calculators before their less able counterparts.

Ministers originally asked the task force to make recommendations on the use of calculators but last November they jumped the gun.

They told curriculum advisers that the use of calculators should be strongly discouraged not just for under-eights but also for under-11s and that it should be reviewed even in secondary schools.

Their instructions conflicted with a report from the advisers at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority which reviewed research on calculators and found no evidence that their use made much difference to children's maths. Bad teaching, the report suggested, was a more likely explanation of Britain's poor performance in international maths surveys.

The task force report recommends a training programme for heads, teachers and governors on the most effective ways of teaching maths.

Professor Reynolds emphasised that he was not recommending a return to old- fashioned teaching methods where pupils sit in rows and are lectured by the teacher. Though there should be more whole-class teaching, teachers should engage their pupils in questioning and discussion.

Teachers wanted to know what worked, he said. "The DIY methods of the past which protected the interests of the leading edge of teachers may not necessarily be the way forward." He added: "We want to see a modern, up-to-date approach to the teaching of maths in which a blend of the best of traditional and more recent approaches are used in every school."

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, welcomed the report.

"It does not suggest a simplistic return to Victorian basics. It recommends a variety of teaching methods which have been shown to work well," he said.