Calculate this risk

10th July 1998 at 01:00
The British have never been much good at maths. Our schools have somehow never managed reliably to deliver either skills or confidence in the subject. Surveys of adult numeracy tend to unearth an alarmingly high proportion of people too scared of humiliation even to attempt the questions.

This week, David Blunkett launched the Government's numeracy strategy, which will put Pounds 60 million into raising the level of achievement in primary schools. Let no one doubt that this is necessary. If 40 per cent of our 11-year-olds cannot subtract five from 203, and if four out of five cannot multiply 56 by 100, more effective and structured teaching methods clearly need to be found.

All the same, there will be some shock that calculators are to be discouraged for the under-eights and that multiplication tables are to be recited aloud. We shall no doubt hear mutterings about turning the clock back, and that such antiquated skills are irrelevant to the modern world.

It is, of course, true that calculators have dispensed with the need for much mental arithmetic in adult life. But what we tend to forget - and what the French understand very well - is that if children's mathematical thinking is to progress, the appropriate neurological pathways in their brains need to be developed and stimulated at an early age. It may be true that we do not "need" tables as adults. But we probably do need a feel for the mathematical patterns which we absorbed while learning them.

What the Americans call "drill and practice", and more deep-rooted mathematical understandings, are not mutually exclusive; they reinforce each other. A mixed diet which exploits every form of learning, including "by rote" but also investigative techniques, enables the brain to make a wider range of mathematical connections: more opportunities for more pennies to drop.

The argument against committing tables to memory used to be that too many children chanted them without understanding. This was no doubt true in the 1950s; but today we have evolved more sophisticated methods of teaching maths, and making sure that real understanding is there too.

The notion that the numeracy hour will force tens of thousands of primary classrooms to adopt mindless "parrot-fashion" learning is unnecessarily alarmist. Why? Because the strategy is in the hands of the primary teachers themselves; they know better than to let it happen.

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