Calculators may be used off the bone

26th December 1997 at 00:00
There are heroes, superheroes and Desperate Dan. In a year where every week seemed to bring a new development, I thought the threat that Desperate Dan might disappear from the Dandy marked the lowest point.

When he was reinstated it was a defining moment for the century, proof that good guys can survive, even when the odds are stacked against them. Part of our collective childhood would have disappeared with him.

Desperate Dan was never all that desperate. Whatever ills befell him, he was always there for a fresh adventure the following week. If even the indestructible Dan had fallen, what bastion would have been safe in our society?

The year was full of threats of oblivion. The much admired Teletubbies came under fire, yet by the end of the year they had broken all records for toy sales and won an international prize for being "educational". In the 21st century they will be seen by the next generation of adults as one of the great memories of childhood. A seemly dignity will be restored to them.

Calculators, too, came under fire and were threatened with a ban. I have a very simple view of calculators, and of bans, for that matter. Prohibition is a strategy that should be used sparingly. It reminded me of when schools used to frown on parents for teaching children capital letters. What were they supposed to do? Pretend they didn't exist? Cover up all the shop signs, notices warning of DANGER, car number plates?

I have to use fiendishly complicated statistics in my own research. It would be hopelessly time-consuming if I did not have a computer. However, I have always made sure that I can apply even multivariate methods, like factor analysis, by hand, so that I understand what is going on.

Calculators are an everyday fact of life. They are to be found in most homes. Walk into any branch ofW H Smith or numerous other high street shops and there they are. The solution is quite simple. The evidence shows that very little use of calculators is made in the infant school, so it is not, in any case, a problem at that stage.

Children should not use a calculator until they are competent in written and mental arithmetic, are absolutely secure in the manual solution of maths problems, and no longer make silly place value errors. Second, they should learn how to use calculators judiciously, once they are ready for them, so that they don't one day misuse them at home and in work. Third, there must be separate "calculator maths" testing, to check if they can use them intelligently and accurately.

Finally, if people are really anxious about the whole issue of modern information technology in the classroom, we should require schools to employ a man bearing a red flag to walk in front of any child using a calculator.

In a year full of symbolic events the use of target-setting for the year 2000 and beyond became a hot issue. Personally I cannot get worked up about the millennium. Sad and boring, I know, but for me January 1 in the year 2000 is merely the day after December 31, 1999 and the day before January 2, 2000.

I am more concerned about what goes on in schools every day, than I am about some arbitrary date which would have no significance at all if we had a duodecimal instead of a decimal system. The problem about staking everything on targets of a certain kind for a certain date is that it can skew people's efforts. Individual dates come and go, but the enduring issues of preparing children for the rigours of the future are there every minute of every day.

My own memorable symbolic event in 1997 was an interesting one. I never go to do-it-yourself shops, as I am a firm believer in do-it-someone-else. However, one Saturday in the summer I went to a well known DIY superstore to buy a bath panel. Unfortunately it didn't fit, so I had to take it back. This simple event gave me a new insight into what counts as "management" nowadays.

The woman on the check-out was very efficient, filling in the appropriate document and explaining what was involved. Then she rang her little bell, saying that she was not empowered to approve even a straightforward refund as it had to be countersigned by "the management".

Intrigued at what kind of super-manager was employed to handle such high-level policy matters as refunding a few pounds on returned goods, I looked across the vast store as we waited for "the management" to appear. Would it be a whole team of besuited executives? A female power dresser? A bespectacled serious-looking chap with briefcase, bowler and pinstripe?

In the event it was none of these. To my utter disappointment and astonishment "the management" in question was a spotty youth in apron who lurched up uncouthly, bawling something like "Wharra yer want?" to the middle-aged, intelligent check-out woman.

I felt like muttering the words of an American friend who was once being pestered by an acne-ridden street salesman - "Go and play under the traffic, kid." It was sad to realise that it is not only in education that bright imaginative people are sometimes subject to the rule of the twerp.

All of which serves to remind us that optimism for the future must be an essential counter to the dreary in modern life. Let us hope 1998 will see sanity return.

Desperate Dan will live on, though he will never get a job in "management". Calculators will not be banned, better to get children to use them sensibly. Cow pie will be restored to school dinner menus. And fairies will dance at the bottom of your garden.

Happy New Year.

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