Sorry, kids: in the calculator age, sums still matter

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The Independent Online
Proposals to raise standards in maths with a new emphasis on mental arithmetic and more, better whole-class teaching, will be proposed by the Government's Numeracy Task Force next week. But the report is not a blueprint for a return to traditional teaching methods, says Judith Judd, Education Editor.

British children are lagging behind their counterparts elsewhere because schools' expectations of them are too low, the report says. Children should be expected to do most mathematical calculations in their heads, rather than using pencil and paper, until they are seven or eight.

The task force, led by Professor David Reynolds of Newcastle University, will give a strong endorsement to methods being trialled by the National Numeracy Project, in which 10 minutes are spent at the beginning of each maths lesson on mental calculation. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, commissioned the inquiry to help fulfil his promise that 75 per cent of 11-year-olds will be at the expected level in maths by the year 2002. The present figure is 62 per cent.

Last year England came tenth out of 17, far behind countries in the Pacific Rim and Eastern Europe, in an international survey of the mathematical performance of nine-year-olds. Countries such as the United States, Canada and Ireland, which were level with or below England six years previously, have pulled ahead.

The task force report draws on the experience of Hungary and Switzerland as well as several projects in Britain, especially the National Numeracy Project.

British teachers spend less time teaching the whole class than those in most other countries. The figure is between 25 and 30 per cent compared with between 70 and 80 per cent in some Pacific Rim countries.

The report urges more whole-class teaching, though it does not specify how much.

Like the Literacy Task Force, whose report was published last year, the maths group want to see a dramatic change in the educational culture in Britain and an end to the assumption that there will always be a sizeable minority of children who cannot make the grade.

Professor Reynolds and his team do not advocate a return to the teaching methods of the fifties, when children sat in desks in rows and the teacher taught the whole class all the time. Nor do they propose the compulsory chanting of times tables.

Instead, they argue that teachers should use a mixture of methods. Though there should be more whole-class teaching in which children take an active part, pupils should also work in groups and on their own. Practical and investigative maths in which they find out things for themselves should continue alongside a renewed emphasis on mental calculation. Multiplication tables should be taught but in many different ways including the use of games and computers.

The quality of teaching, they say, is just as important as the method and teachers should be given more training. Where schools are getting good results, they should not be required to change.

Ministers have said they expect all primary schools to have a "numeracy hour" every day in the same way as the prescribed literacy hour. However, the report suggests that schools should spend between 45 minutes and an hour each day on numeracy. Experience of teachers involved in the National Numeracy Project suggests that an hour may be too long.

Parents should play a key role in raising standards, the report suggests. Materials should be available for them to help their children with maths even before they start school and help should be offered to parents who feel their own maths is so bad that they cannot help their children.

There should be a national year of reading, perhaps to coincide with International Maths Year in the year 2000. It would involve parents and the rest of the community in the same way as the National Year of Reading which is due to start this September. On the place of calculators in primary schools, on which the team were asked to advise, the report is silent. Some members are thought to be angry the Government decided to ban calculators in primary schools last year before their report was complete.