Pressure on children to learn by rote is set to increase: from 2014, the proposed new primary curriculum will expect that all nine-year-olds can do their 12 times tables.
But research from the University of Oxford suggests that the renewed focus on traditional learning techniques - supported by the government - is misplaced. Learning arithmetic, it says, is not as important as learning how to think mathematically.
The findings come from a study of more than 4,000 children, which concluded that learning "mathematical reasoning" is the key to improving maths ability as children get older. The reasoning tests (see illustration, right) contain simple arithmetic, but require pupils to work out which sums to calculate.
Professor Peter Bryant, one of four researchers on the project, presented the findings at a recent conference on dyscalculia - the mathematical equivalent of dyslexia. He told TES afterwards that the study underlines how vital it is for mathematical reasoning to feature prominently in schools.
"Both arithmetic and maths reasoning are important and necessary, but we think there is a danger of maths reasoning moving out," he said. "I am not trying to say don't teach times tables or procedures; it is important to have them. But it is possible to leave out maths reasoning and teach calculation, while you can't teach reasoning without children being able to calculate."
Just last week, schools minister Nick Gibb made a speech to the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education championing the importance of rote learning. He said that learning times tables by heart and being able to do long division helps children to do well in algebra in their teens.
But Professor Bryant's study found a much stronger link between eight- year-olds who are good at maths reasoning and their performance in the subject at age 11 and 14 than eight-year-olds who are good at arithmetic.
About one in five pupils currently leaves primary school without reaching the expected level in maths. The draft primary maths curriculum, published last month, ramps up the number knowledge young pupils are expected to gain. From 2014, children will be expected to know what pairs of numbers add up to 20 by the end of Year 1 instead of Year 2, and greater emphasis will be placed on knowing times tables.
Mike Ellicock, chief executive of campaign group National Numeracy, said that "mathematical thinking" was central to developing good numeracy skills. "We are a long way from a narrow definition of maths as arithmetic," he said. "So it is interesting to have sound research that supports the importance of reasoning.
"The crucial thing is supporting teachers and how they teach. We are spending far too long fighting about whether to teach multiplication tables to 12x12 or 10x10 or whatever.
"The real need is to concentrate on how a curriculum manifests itself in a learning experience in classrooms . Teachers' enthusiasm for maths, subject knowledge and pedagogy (are) by far the most important (elements) in that."
A Department for Education spokeswoman said the proposed curriculum would develop reasoning skills alongside arithmetic and problem solving. "Reasoning is one of the three pillars," she said. "In emphasising fluency, the expectation is that pupils develop methods that are underpinned by mathematical concepts."
Original headline: Rote learning minus reason equals maths confusion schools