Ministers want to ban calculators in class

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The Independent Online
The Government is ignoring curriculum advisers who say calculators are not bad for young children's maths. Judith Judd finds out why ministers want to banish them from the classroom.

Ministers have spurned recommendations from their own curriculum advisers and are trying to bar calculators for all primary school pupils. Angry mathematicians say the decision flies in the face of research which shows that calculators are not to blame for the nation's poor performance in maths.

Calculators have long been under attack for damaging children's mental arithmetic. Before the election, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, said that he intended to ban calculators for children under eight. But an unpublished report for ministers from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority found no evidence of a link between calculators and poor mental arithmetic among infant pupils.

Now Estelle Morris, the schools standards minister, has written to the authority saying that the use of calculators should be strongly discouraged not only for the under-eights but for all pupils up to 11. Even in secondary schools, she says, their use should be reviewed.

Ministers have discovered that they cannot enforce a ban on calculators without changing the law but they are insisting on guidance to teachers warning against their use.

Ms Morris has told Sir William Stubbs, the authority's chairman, that the recommendations "do not go far enough. Our firm view is that the Government's drive to raise standards of numeracy in primary schools would be best served by strongly discouraging" calculator use in primary schools. Mental calculation must be accorded a central place in the teaching of mathematics and should always be used as the first resort method of calculation."

However, the report on calculators for infants says: "The evidence ... indicates that the use of calculators is generally infrequent and there are few schools in which pupils have ready and regular access to calculators." Nor is there any evidence that the use of calculators makes much difference to pupils' maths, the report says. Other features of teaching are much more likely to be to blame.

Professor Sig Prais, of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, said he was unconvinced by the report. "You have to get the basic mental skills firmly implanted and that cannot be done if children are using calculators."

The recent Third International Maths and Science Survey found that the five highest scoring countries used calculators much less frequently than the low scoring countries.

But Professor Margaret Brown, of the Government's numeracy task force, pointed out that, in England, the 13-year-olds who did best in the survey were those who used calculators most frequently. "Teachers are not using calculators instead of doing mental arithmetic. They are using them to develop skills such as developing ideas of number and for reinforcing what people have learnt," she said.

"Children like calculators. They are motivating and they show that the maths at school is like the maths people do outside."