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A calculated move

Brian Taylor | 10:45 UK time, Thursday, 22 November 2007

What do you make of that report about the maths skills of trainee primary teachers?

The one that suggested 65 per cent of first year student teachers fell short in an online test, designed to assess their skills.

To help those who failed the test, I reckon that means nearly two thirds of those setting out to teach the next generation at primary level couldn’t, themselves, surmount a test in basic maths.

At least, I presume it was basic. Perhaps someone can enlighten me but I don’t imagine the test involved advanced calculus or trigonometry.

It was, I would guess, an exercise in sums. Tricky sums, perhaps. But sums. The sort of thing that used to be taught separately from maths in secondary school.

When I were a lad – falling, intuitively, into a cod Yorkshire accent as I write – there was an O Grade exam in Arithmetic. Quite distinctly, mathematics could be studied for six years at secondary school.

Jack McConnell is a former maths teacher (I presume he also taught sums). Is it possible he had a point when he suggested reviving the arithmetic test in secondary schools?

Should he have taken the chance to act while in office? Should members of the present Parliament agitate for such a change?

Should we stop pretending we teach mathematics in primary school – and teach sums instead?

Answers, please, on one side of the paper only. Show your working.


  • 1.
  • At 11:07 AM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Garfield wrote:

Without a doubt arithmetic should be re-introduced as a subject on it's own. While they're at it, they could also re-introduce teaching kids how to spell while "expressing themselves".

  • 2.
  • At 11:24 AM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Linda Weatherley wrote:

I am a recently retired teacher of Computing and couldn't agree more. For most people, Arithmetic is all that is required. Sums are the basics that everyone should be able to do. Nowadays some pupils don't even know when to add or subtract, never mind get the correct answer.

  • 3.
  • At 12:02 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Chris wrote:

I'm in total agreement.

My wife has just completed her postgraduate training in primary teaching and the standards of knowledge in maths vary greatly. I don't think she is a maths genius by any stretch of the imagination but some of her friends maths skills are terrible.

How can anyone teach upper primary maths when they themselves can't do it.
For example a sum such as 700/35 is pretty easy to work out if you can see that 700 is double 350. But that isn't how they were taught to do division so they dont see that link and have to use long division (or a calculator) for even this fairly simple sum.

I've noticed a big struggle with fractions as well, for example which is bigger 5/7 or 3/5.

The problem is we were taught maths poorly at secondary school and now people my age are becoming teachers and dont have the basic knowledge to teach it correctly.


PS the answer is 20 and 5/7!

  • 4.
  • At 12:07 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Peter, Fife wrote:

Two foxes against the rest, Wendy will be miffed as will Nicol when he eventually realises what has happened; I feel in Nicol’s case he will still be expecting an approach from the First Minister to tick the box

  • 5.
  • At 12:12 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Michael Stewart wrote:

Absolutely. Bring back 'O' grade sums (or whatever it's modern equivalent is) and while we are at it return English to it's seperate Language and Literature papers too.

  • 6.
  • At 12:13 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • EricH wrote:

I have an arithmetic O-Level. When I go for job interviews they say, "What's an O-Level?".

  • 7.
  • At 12:28 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Martin Mackay wrote:

My work takes on young people to work in our warehouse quite often. These are people that have not gone onto higher educaction for whatever reason and come to us for work.

Not one in the last 10 we have employed can write or add correctly. Even more worrying is some do have decent qualifications. One lad with a Higher in English has spelling and grammer around Primary 5 level.

How can this be?

Surely pupils in School should not be doing Geography, Chemistry, Physics etc if they cannot read, write or add properly?

Even worse is people get English Highers for reviewing books and films etc but have a basic grasp of English itself.

The entire education system is a mess right through to encouraging people to go for pointless degrees that cost lot but acheive nothing.

Then companies like the one I work for employ people with degrees in anything aslong as its a degree for its important jobs. You end up with someone with a degree in International Studies doing a Area Sales Managers job with no idea what they are doing - I see this every week.

Why not train the people for the jobs needing done? Is that too simple?

Well said. There should be a basic requirement for arithmetic to be taught to pupils instead of worrying about other things. Give them long division, multiplication, addition and subtraction - but include negative numbers at least and take the calculators off the children until at least P6 or P7.

Save the more complicated matters for secondary.

(and let's see the test so we can see the basic level that these teachers failed at)

Should there now be a call for teachers to be tested every four or five years to remain as teachers?

  • 9.
  • At 12:56 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Sarah Faherty wrote:

I have 2 daughters in P3 and P5 in primary school. They do get taught maths as well as sums at school. Every week my daughter in P5 comes home with a 'Maths Sack' which has a fun way for all the family to make sure we get the difference. No sums in this just logic and problem solving games/puzzles to lay down the basics to build on in future years!

  • 10.
  • At 01:05 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Gordon wrote:

What worries me more, is that this was an online test and they could have used a calculator on the pc without anyone knowing.

  • 11.
  • At 02:44 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Mathematician wrote:

I work as a consultant advising scientists in their use of mathematical methods. I started out by getting my O-grade arithmetic and maths and then Higher maths, before going on to university.

Recently I have been helping a friend's child with her Standard grade maths and have been stunned at how basic it all is.

The foundation level barely gets beyond what what was covered in Primary school in the 70s, and the general level seems like the 80s Arithmetic o-grade with a sprinkling of watered down o-grade maths. Even the credit syllabus fails to cover important (and trickier) material that we used to cover for O-grade.

I'd describe the foundation level of the maths standard grade as a benchmark for barely adequate everyday numeracy. I think the problem is that ALL the material and expectations have been watered down, not that maths has crowded out basic arithmetic.

  • 12.
  • At 04:05 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Bob wrote:

Too right again, Brian.

Bring back the Arithmetic paper. For a start it is the bedrock of basic numeracy that employers expect and which you need for real life problem solving.

For those who get wet at the slight thought of functions and simultaneous equations, then Maths can still be studied separately.I think restoring the distinction would also help improve overall pupil attainment in Maths itself.

  • 13.
  • At 04:32 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • dr.james smith wrote:

I did my first engineering degree in Imperial College, London in early 1960,s. I have now retired. The mathematics was a nightmare and that was my best subject.
My son ten years ago did an Electrical and Electronics degree in a front line Scottish University. What a reduction in mathematics standards from Imperial days.
The reduction in standards is all across the board.
I was Moderator and Assessor in Marine Engineering in a major Glasgow College and the Lecturers spent half their time remedying lack of mathematical skills in the young.


  • 14.
  • At 05:51 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Scott wrote:

And it's not just arithmetic and mathematics. A couple of years ago our school board went through applications for a new headmaster at our secondary school and I was appalled at the level of grammar and spelling these applicants had. Each and every one of them was either already a headmaster/mistress or deputy head. My son, doing Advanced Highers this year, is doing things I did in 'O' grade.

  • 15.
  • At 07:33 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Jwil wrote:

This whole thing puts the "Scotland has one of the best education sytems in the world" idea into context. I am beginning to wonder if it was just an old wife's tale in the first place and we are simply kidding ourselves. When I was at school maths and arithmetic were two different subjects. Now maths seems to be a general term involving any type of manipulation of numbers!

  • 16.
  • At 08:03 PM on 22 Nov 2007,
  • Bill McMenemy wrote:

I got O grade Arithmetic at the second attempt didn't set me back though. I did like the essay my nephew had returned on which his English teacher had written the comment: "mellowdramatic and cliched." Life's tough at the chalkface.

  • 17.
  • At 07:42 PM on 04 Dec 2007,
  • Jwil wrote:

Why have STV News been able to show extracts from the parliamentary proceedings today which are relevant to Scotland on the above issues and the BBC havn't? Is this another dumbing down of the subject by BBC Scotland?

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