Primary maths teaching skills fail to add up

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Education Editor

Primary school teachers are spending a long time teaching arithmetic but their pupils' adding-up skills are still poor, says a report from school inspectors published yesterday.

The report is one of two from the Office for Standards in Education which look at standards of all the national curriculum subjects and religious education in both primary and secondary schools.

In maths, the inspectors attack primary teachers for relying too much on published schemes of work and for using too narrow a range of teaching methods. Too many pupils are bad at mental arithmetic and too few schools have worked out how to use calculators sensibly.

The report says: "Standards in [arithmetic] are disappointing given the time spent teaching this aspect of mathematics. There is frequently too much emphasis on repetitive number work, which does not address pupils' fundamental errors or misconceptions.

"Too many pupils lack a fluency in mental calculation and cannot tell if their answers are reasonable."

In secondary schools, the inspectors blame low standards on teachers who do not put enough emphasis on mental arithmetic and using calculators sensibly.

The inspectors say teaching standards are good enough in around four out of five lessons in primary schools and in an even higher proportion of secondary lessons. But they are concerned that the introduction of tests for 7- and 11-year-olds in primary schools has narrowed the curriculum.

The tests in English, maths and science have encouraged schools to concentrate on these subjects at the expense of others, says the report. "There are fewer opportunities for pupils to investigate and experiment, particularly in science."

There is also some evidence that a greater number of teachers are using more whole-class teaching methods rather than group or individual work.

In their overall assessment of primary teaching, the inspectors criticise the standards of marking. Too many teachers do not mark work regularly and do not tell pupils how they can improve their work.

In secondary schools, by contrast, teachers are conscientious about marking work but still fail to explain to pupils how they can do better. Some teachers are simply too generous in their marking and encourage pupils to underachieve.

Teachers' expectations of pupils are often too low in both primary and secondary schools. Able pupils, in particular, are underrated.

The report backs up last week's attack on mixed-ability teaching by David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, which says: "Mixed ability teaching requires the utmost in teacher skills."

However, Mr Blunkett's report warns that, even when pupils are setted by ability in different subjects, teachers sometimes overestimate the similarity between pupils.

In one in five primary schools teachers do not have enough subjects knowledge to teach all the national curriculum subjects properly.

A spokesman for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority said that the schools' concentration on basic skills, criticised by the inspectors, was exactly what the review of the national curriculum had been designed to achieve. Schools should be emphasising basic literacy and numeracy.