Education Quandary

'Why does my granddaughter's school not teach times tables by rote? My children loved reciting them out loud, and still remember them today'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's Advice

Hilary's Advice

Ah, as Prince Charles might say, it was better in the old days. Or was it? Learning tables is one of those memories of education that always have older people shaking their heads and wondering where it all went wrong. Basics were drilled into children in those days, they point out, and it worked. Anyone who had "six sixes are 36..." drummed into their brain at primary school, had it in there forever.

So, why change? The answer is a complicated mix of facts, fads and newfangled ideas. The fact is that not every child successfully learnt to chant those tables, and of those that did, not every child properly understood what it was they were chanting. And then learning by rote went wildly out of fashion; education was supposed to be an adventure of exploration and enjoyment. And, at the same time, an avalanche of new resources - games, videos, computers - seemed to offer a more varied way forward.

Now, though, rote learning is edging back in from the cold. Recent research by Dr Sylvia Steel, of Royal Holloway, University of London, shows that children who memorise their tables in the traditional way do their sums better than others. And the Association of Teachers of Mathematics says that this kind of learning is coming back into the classroom, albeit alongside other methods.

As always in education, the pendulum has swung one way, then the other - and maybe that isn't such a bad thing. If we made no progress, pupils would still be stitching homilies on to samplers. If, on the other hand, we never checked or scrutinised that progress, any development would rapidly spin off into la-la land.

Of course, it would be good if the swings were gentle, and no children missed out as a result, but a system that is constantly trying to correct and improve itself has to be better than either one that clings rigidly to an old mould, or ruthlessly chucks it out of the window. If today's children get to understand their tables through grids and games, and also learn to access them easily by rote learning, so much the better.

Readers' Advice

Chanting tables suits some children but others find it terrifyingly muddling. I encourage the children that I teach to practise counting in multiples of each number up to 12, as though along a number line, spotting patterns as they go. They can get very quick at this, even special-needs children, and then use this skill, along with their fingers (yes!), to work out tables facts quickly and efficiently, using all the relevant vocabulary. Instead of mindless - if sometimes enjoyable - chanting, the children are thinking and understanding.

Liz Heesom, Lincolnshire

Schools have cunningly delegated rote learning of times tables to parents. They appear frequently as a homework "extra", or a comment in parents' newsletters - "Y3 should know their 2, 3, 4, 5 & 10 times tables this year". This means that dedicated mothers sit down with their children and do the rote work at home. The rest of us have flurries of anxiety in that overloaded space between getting home from work after six to sort out the family meal, the guinea pigs, the explicit homework, and getting the children to bed by 9pm. We know that our children's failure at maths is therefore entirely our own fault, and if we didn't insist on working to pay the mortgage, our children would be much better off.

Rosemary Slater, London W5

My children picked up tables from tapes in the car. They had no trouble memorising them, and seemed to enjoy the process. When I asked the school why they didn't do it this way, I was told that most children learn better by computer.

Lesley Brierley, Surrey

Next quandary

Our school is facing losing a number of long-standing governors, and no one wants to take their place. The people whom we have approached either say that they have no time, or that they are not up to the job. Where can a school find willing governors? And are there any effective ways of "selling" the job to reluctant candidates?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 29 November, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser