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Real life multiplies chance to practise

A Saturday job gave Linda Pagett the surest grounding in mental arithmetic

Last month the National Numeracy Project called for a return to whole class teaching of multiplication tables (TES April 4).

Politicians on all sides might agree this should be part of a "Back to Basics" campaign in education. But how far is back?

In the Fifties I chanted all 12 tables backwards and forwards as a prerequisite to free milk at playtime. Why, even now I can rattle back anything up to 144.

In the Sixties I applied for a Saturday job in Woolworth's to join the ladies who solemnly weighed out sweets, biscuits and ballbearings while balancing on their heads yellow cotton tiaras with red " Ws" embroidered centrally.

* 1 yard of elastic at 3d per foot.

* 7 lbs of birdseed at 16 per pound * A score of cuphooks at 4 for sixpence.

I stared at the preliminary maths test given me by the supervisor, who wore a blue tiara to denote her superior rank. Flicking through the number bases was beyond me. I just couldn't do it. The manageress, no tiara, red enamel "W" on the lapel of her own clothes, was called.

"You do go to grammar school don't you?" she queried squinting at the golden eagle on my breast pocket forever fledged above the words "Ad Astra".

The stars must wait. Woolies were short: I could have a trial.

A few weeks on mixed biscuits and "pick and mix" boiled sweets without the benefit of paper, pencil, or a till that could compute, made me red hot.

My crowning moment came when a customer queried the bill. The supervisor arrived and doubtfully licked the pencil kept behind her left ear. I was promoted to ice-creams and trusted to slice off just enough vanilla for a wafer.

So what is the point of this story?

Real contexts give real opportunities to get good at something. Knowing multiplication tables is only one strategy in mental arithmetic. Mental arithmetic is easy if you practice.

By comparison, fixing a cotton tiara with two kirby grips so it doesn't fall down like a visor is far more difficult.

Linda Pagett is a primary teacher in Sidmouth, Devon

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