Minister's critics multiply as he says: 'You do the maths'

9th December 2011 at 00:00
Mr Gibb sparks a backlash after claiming calculators weaken ability

The ministerial announcement last week that the national curriculum review would look into the possibility of banning calculators from primary school classrooms generated swathes of newspaper column inches.

The media was delighted to jump on the story, buying into the idea, as propagated by schools minister Nick Gibb, that the use of the devices at a young age undermined the arithmetical rigour required to "master the more difficult maths they will come across later in their education".

However, after the dust had settled on Mr Gibb's request that the review panel examine the use of calculators, his comments triggered a backlash: heads, academics and educationalists emerged to point out the benefits of the use of the technology in primaries.

Mr Gibb was unequivocal on the situation. "They (pupils) shouldn't be reaching for a gadget every time they need to do a simple sum," he told a Westminster Hall debate. "They need to master addition, subtraction, times tables and division, using quick, reliable written methods. This rigour provides the groundwork for the more difficult maths they will come across later in their education."

But this is not an analysis many in schools recognise.

"We want to teach our children to have excellent mental arithmetic skills and to learn the traditional numerical algorithms, but we also want them to apply their knowledge and to have experience of plenty of other areas of mathematics," said Dr Emily Macmillan, head of maths at the independent Dragon School. The Oxford prep school has featured in an Ofsted report on good practice in primary maths.

"We don't want these other areas of maths to be out of reach because their mental arithmetic or formal written methods are poor," Dr Macmillan added. "There is a place for calculators and, used properly, they can aid understanding, improve mental arithmetic, help build confidence and empower students to learn and enjoy maths."

Academics have also waded in to the debate. Oxford University's Dr Ann Dowker has researched why some children struggle with maths, and she believes that calculator use shows few strong consequences on arithmetical calculation or reasoning.

"For what it's worth, it is known that, before calculators were in regular use, there were already many people who failed to develop basic mathematical skills," she said.

She pointed to a 1997 study by the now-defunct Basic Skills Agency of virtually all 37-year-olds born in Britain in one week of 1958 - way before calculators were debuted in primaries. They were asked to complete basic numeracy tests and some 22 per cent were found to have "very low" numeracy skills.

Other high-profile researchers agree. Professor David Reynolds of Southampton University was chair of the Numeracy Task Force, which designed the national numeracy strategy in the late 1990s. "The difficulty with calculator usage is that this is one of the least well-researched areas in the whole of education," he said.

"Of the 50 differences you could find when comparing the education systems of England and Shanghai (top of the Programme for International Student Assessment maths table) calculator usage is not one of the more powerful factors.

"The Chinese tradition of specialist teaching in primary school, their climate of high expectation, and high-quality textbooks would enter into it, rather than calculator usage. I think the English education system has got calculator usage about right."

And while teachers and academics are not convinced, Mr Gibb's comments have frustrated potential political opponents, too.

"More than most previous governments, this one is convinced it knows what to do in the classroom better than teachers," said Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT. "The minister should have more important things to deal with than that level of detail."

A head for figures?

2% - Year 5 teachers in England who ban calculators

98% - Teachers in Singapore who ban calculators

52% - Teachers in Hong Kong who ban calculators

81% - Pupils in England who spent more than half their lesson time practising basic calculations without using a calculator, compared with 73 per cent in Singapore and 50 per cent in Hong Kong

Source: 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

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