PUPILS' mental arithmetic may suffer as a result of the Government's introduction of baseline assessment, researchers warned last week.
Reception class teachers are focusing on teaching four and five-year-olds to recognise numbers and count because these skills are tested. Researchers now fear these skills are being concentrated on at the expense of games which are the building blocks for pupils' understanding of numbers.
Dr Penny Munn, a psychology lecturer, told the British Psychological Society developmental conference at Lancaster University that children needed to to know from an early age that numbers are made up of other numbers so they can move confidently into mental arithmetic later.
She said: "There is a concern that these sorts of things are not being assessed and so will not be taught. Teachers tend to teach to what is being assessed. Baseline assessment seems to miss out simple number development, the understanding of mathematical concepts that comes from number games.
"Understanding that five is made up of two and three, or four and one by putting out five things and then, say, hiding two and asking how many are hidden, that kind of understanding is going to help children when they have to do addition in their heads," she said.
Pre-school children learnt from lots of practical play, she pointed out. The Government could be creating problems for the weakest children by insisting that the pre-school curriculum prepared children for the primary curriculum.
She added: "Weaker children will grasp at the simpler aspects of what's taught without developing a solid, conceptual foundation. They treat numbers as things and fail to connect numerals with real quantities.
"A gentler curriculum, with lots and lots of practical experience to help develop number sense is what's needed." Dr Munn, of the University of Central Lancashire, assessed reception children's number skills. She found pupils were better at recognising and drawing number symbols than at understanding the logic of numbers.
Dr Charles Crook, reader in psychology at Loughborough University, who has looked at children's progress in mental arithmetic in years 3, 4, 5 and 6, found that after five years of primary maths, many children still depended on counting to do simple addition. He told the conference that children's mental arithmetic was a "bit sluggish".
He said: "They get the right answers but it takes a long time and I think this makes it a bit of a drudge." He said if children learnt how numbers broke down they would be able to do the sums faster.
Dr Crook acknowledged that children also needed to develop a sense of number in real, practical situations. He added: "But this does not mean that we cannot prioritise the mechanical business of doing fluent mental arithmetic. By enhancing their computational ability we empower children and make them more interested, more prepared to go on."