Stop being so negative over maths reforms

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Your article "Return to 'dark ages' of mechanical sums" (TES, May 26), shows how hard it is to get a message across to hundreds of people. The review of the primary maths framework has clearly been misunderstood and several inaccuracies in the article only add to the confusion.

Disappointingly, the fuss distracts attention from two real changes proposed: an earlier start to multiplication and division, including learning tables; and using the calculator as an aid from Year 4, instead of Year 5.

In 1999, the numeracy strategy said: 'The aim is that, for each of the four operations, as many children as possible can, by the age of 11, carry out a standard written method.' The "outrage" expressed, as though this aim were new, is therefore hard to understand.

There is no suggestion in the proposals that informal methods should not continue to be taught and refined for as long as is necessary. The "furious" experts quoted in your article would be right to be so if that were the case.

But they would be wrong to suggest that children who thoroughly understand and can use expanded methods correctly, as they will do if well taught, should not then be introduced to more efficient methods. Education does not stand still.

Primary teachers have made huge contributions to improvements in teaching maths, but there are still problems that the review aims to address. Some teachers have taught several methods for, say, subtraction, expecting children to choose the one they think best, which can leave children confused.

Other teachers have focused on informal methods without moving children on to formalised, more efficient written methods. (Alongside the article is a photo showing the division 750 V 12. Three chunks of 240 have been subtracted, and 62 piles of 12 counters counted out. How long did this take, I wonder?) Such a move is crucial but, of course, has to be introduced progressively, building steadily on well-understood informal methods.

The timing of the move to the next stage will vary from child to child, and operation to operation. Children tend to grasp addition and multiplication more readily than subtraction and division. But by 11, most are capable of using the standard method of addition, a sizeable proportion - but not all - will be able to use conventional subtraction and long multiplication methods, and a small number will have progressed to long division.

Tim Coulson, senior director of the primary strategy, has promised to change any nuance in the maths proposals that may have given the wrong impression. I feel sure that he will. Isn't that what a consultation is for?

Anita Straker

(Former director, national numeracy strategy) Mundays, St Mary Bourne, Andover, Hampshire The editor writes: Documents on the framework update, released by the primary national strategy, state that it will put more emphasis on standard methods, and specifically that children should be taught one standard method for each operation, rather than several. The update suggests pupils should be using the standard method to calculate by Year 6. This is a matter of intense debate in the maths community.

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