Even now, some children spend four-fifths of a lesson working by themselves, said Professor David Reynolds, chair of the Government's numeracy taskforce.
This week the group published the final version of its scheme to rescue primary school mathematics, a strategy with whole-class, "interactive" instruction at its core.
The #163;60 million national numeracy strategy will begin in September 1999, one year later than its counterpart literacy strategy.
The numeracy programme features what Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, described as "tried and tested methods in a modern context".
It includes a daily numeracy hour, a strong emphasis on mental arithmetic and times tables, and a training programme for teachers.
Ministers have promised that by the end of a first Labour term in office, three-quarters of all 11-year-olds will be reaching level 4 in the national curriculum maths tests. By 2007, says Labour, all pupils will be hitting this target.
"We're clear about what went wrong," said Professor Reynolds, speaking at the launch. "Methods of teaching introduced in the 70s and 80s had deleterious effects on maths in particular," he said. "All the research agrees that the one thing that badly affects performance in maths is letting children work on their own."
The final numeracy document shows few changes from the interim, consultation version published earlier in the year. Its recommendations include:
- a daily numeracy lesson of between 45 minutes and an hour, depending on pupils' ages;
- training for every primary maths teacher on effective methods, including live demonstrations;
- 300 local numeracy experts to advise schools;
- a three-day training course in summer 1999 for headteachers, maths co-ordinators, one other teacher from every school plus a governor;
- intensive support for up to 60 per cent of primaries;
- numeracy targets for 2002 to be agreed with each LEA;
- a column to be added to primary league tables which notes the achievements of pupils who do not reach level 4;
The money for the numeracy strategy will be announced as part of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.