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Pupils plus calculators equal big nothing

Primary pupils, already shamed for their poor mental arithmetic, can't even cope with their calculators, it has emerged.

Last summer's special calculator test paper should have been a gift to a techno-dependent generation. But to the amazement of examiners, most 11-year-olds ignored the technological option and resorted to pencil and paper.

Early reports of how children tackled the key stage 2 curriculum tests will baffle ministers who have accorded the machines near demon status.

They claim that the technology undermines pupils' mental arithmetic and have asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for advice on how to limit their use.

Yet, according to the QCA's own (unpublished) research from 1996, calculators are hardly used in the primary classroom.

At the same time, ministers are being urged by advisers that they should adopt policies to enhance children's understanding of arithmetic.

The National Numeracy Project - much-praised by the Government - is calling for a systematic programme of calculator training for teachers as well as pupils.

Margaret Dawes, a tax partner with KPMG and a member of the government's numeracy task force, believes calculators can be an aid to learning rather than a barrier.

"Somewhere along the line children should be taught how to use calculators properly. They need to learn how to use them efficiently and effectively. When they end up working they're going to use them every day.

"I also think calculators help to increase understanding of mathematics at least as much as writing things down on a piece of paper does."

Anita Straker, the project director, said: "Year 5 and 6 children need to be shown how to use calculators actively and positively. This is not least to prepare them for the key stage 2 calculator paper - although good mental skills are still the prority.

"Their use has been rather patchy. There's never been enough training to show teachers how to use them properly." It was important, she said, that schools developed an understanding of how children's calculator skills develop. Yet at present there is little support material to help them.

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