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Numeracy hour multiplies brain power

The national strategy's emphasis on mental maths is paying dividends for pupils, helping them to build up their thinking capacity

PRIMARY PUPILS are better at doing maths in their heads than they were before the national numeracy strategy was launched eight years ago, introducing the numeracy hour.

The news comes after Ed Balls used his first major speech as Secretary for Children, Schools and Families to launch a review of primary maths teaching, saying there was a need to "raise our game in maths".

Gwen Ineson, a lecturer at Brunel University, asked groups of Year 6 children in 1999 and 2005 to answer the same questions, first mentally and then in a written test. For all but two questions, pupils achieved higher results in both tests in 2005, she reports.

For three-quarters of the questions, more pupils were able to solve the problems in their heads. In 2005, only 14 per cent needed to write down sums such as 30 x 70 to get the right answer compared to over half eight years ago. The 2005 Year 6s were also more capable at mental subtraction calculations.

In answering problems such as 10,000 minus 101, Ms Ineson pointed out that using a formal written method was more complicated than the rounding and adjusting technique taught today. In this, pupils work out a rough answer first, eg, calculating 10,000 minus 100 minus 1. Addition scores were high in both years.

John Peck, head of Peafield Lane primary in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, said: "The emphasis on mental maths is definitely showing dividends for pupils. It is parents who have been taught traditional methods who we have difficulty explaining the new methods to."

Sue Johnston-Wilder, chair of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, said: "Mental strategies help automate calculations and encourage mental fluency. It is about freeing up as much thinking capacity as possible. It is not a surprise that mental strategies are working but typically children will develop confidence initially and then experience pressure to do sums 'properly', and that is when they start to lose confidence.

"Teachers need to make clear that one method is not necessarily the 'proper' one. No method is efficient if the child can't use it."

The national numeracy strategy has been generally welcomed by schools, and nationally results have risen from 54 per cent of Year 6 pupils achieving level 4 in 1999, to 76 per cent last year.

The emphasis on developing children's mental capability dates back at least to 1982 when the Cockcroft report, Mathematics Counts, emphasised its importance. Pupils also take a mental maths exam as part of their key stage tests at the end of primary school.

* 'Year 6 children: has the new British mathematics curriculum helped their mental computation?' published in 'Early Child Development and Care', July 2007, by Routledge

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