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Inquiry launched into calculator use

The Government has launched an urgent inquiry into how children of five, six and seven use calculators in primary schools.

The move is another indication of David Blunkett's conservative views on the importance of the three Rs, although the new Education and Employment Secretary refused to speculate about a ban on calculators for primary pupils.

Minister of state Stephen Byers said this week: "We have asked the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority as a matter of urgency to report to us on the use of calculators, particularly with children at key stage 1."

The Department for Education and Employment has also announced the membership of its numeracy task force, charged with ensuring that three-quarters of 11-year-olds are numerate by the end of the coming Parliament.

Chaired by Professor David Reynolds, the 10-strong group includes representatives from university mathematics, mathematics education and maths research.

At the launch of the task force, Mr Blunkett repeated his election promise to raise standards of both literacy and numeracy by 2002 - the end of Labour's first term in office. Labour has set an ambitious target: four out of five 11-year-olds should be reading at level 4 of the national curriculum, and three out of four should reach the same standard in mathematics.

The numeracy task force includes Margaret Brown, professor of maths education at King's College, London, who backs a comparatively liberal, creative view of mathematical study. British pupils, she says, do better at maths than is often suggested.

Alongside her will be Professor David Burghes from the Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching at the University of Exeter, who has a considerably gloomier view of British maths. He is highly critical of "discovery" methods of learning, claiming that secondary school pupils no longer understand the basic rules of maths.

University mathematicians are represented by Professor Chris Robson from the University of Leeds, the chair of the Joint Mathematical Council. University mathematicians have complained that today's undergraduates arrive with less mathematical knowledge than in the past - a point which impressed Sir Ron Dearing when he came to review 16-19 qualifications.

Labour has decided to build on the National Numeracy Project established by the last government. The project's director, Anita Straker, is a member of the new task force. Ms Straker has not been as critical of modern teaching methods as some traditionalists would like. But she has insisted on the importance of mental arithmetic, saying this week that knowing multiplication tables is "essential".

Labour's sympathies are also shown by the presence of Carol Robinson, head of William Ford Primary School in Barking and Dagenham. The East London education authority has introduced "interactive" whole-class teaching along the lines used in Switzerland.

The other task force members include: Martin Armstrong, the deputy head of Marlwood School in South Gloucestershire; Margaret Dawes from KPMG consultants; Pat Petch, from the National Governors Council, and Anne Waterhouse, head of Ormskirk Asmall County Primary in Lancashire.

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