Are parents being left out of the maths equation?

Father helping son Helping your child with maths homework is almost a rite of passage

Primary schools in England need to do more to help pupils struggling with maths, says Ofsted. But have new teaching methods left parents out in the cold and unable to help?

There may be nothing as certain as a number, but the way children are taught to handle them has changed.

As any parent of a primary age child knows, pupils come home with an array of new props in their book bags and terms in their brains to help them tackle their maths homework.

Number lines and number grids have replaced counting on your hands, and perplexing terms like chunking and partitioning represent the new ways of tackling arithmetic in English and Welsh schools.

"Many parents talk about how they try to help their child with their homework and their child says: 'No, no. That's not the way we do it at school,'" says Rob Eastaway, co-author of Maths for Mums and Dads and a former president of the Mathematical Association.

"It's not that parents don't want to engage, but the language of the new methods can be intimidating."

He adds: "There are something like five or six techniques at the heart of arithmetic but it can sound really daunting. And the stuff that teachers send home to parents can look a bit like a management consultancy diagram."

Start Quote

It's as if they cut off my head and poured knowledge in ”

End Quote NAMA president Lynn Churchman on the way she learned maths

But parents are a key factor in whether children succeed, particularly in the early years, when research suggests their influence outweighs that of schools.

Nick Dowrick, director of Every Child Counts, which helps struggling pupils in 2,000 schools, says it is vital that parents understand the methods that are being used in school.

When it offers support to struggling pupils, it urges parents to come in and watch the one-to-one coaching lessons it gives so they understand how things are done.

This sort of approach can work better than school hall events, which can be uncomfortable for parents, says Mr Eastaway.

He says: "Adults can be really hard to reach. They're afraid they will turn up and the teacher will put them on the spot."

Instead he runs sessions in which children take part in fun games and mind reading tricks in class, while the parents sit back and observe without being seen.

But why has maths teaching changed?

The president of the National Association of Mathematics Advisers, Lynn Churchman, says like most of her generation, she was taught maths in a "very didactic way".

Rob Eastaway shows the "grid" and "chunking" methods children are now taught

"It's as if they cut off my head and poured knowledge in then stuck it back on again.

"The problem with this is that when they get to the point where their heads are filled up - they can start to struggle because they're not getting that conceptual understanding," she adds.

Mr Eastaway says old methods of multiplication and division are "a bit like a black box - you put a number in and you get another number out."

With methods like chunking and partitioning, children get to understand what is going on.

As Ms Churchman explains, modern maths teaching focuses on the key concepts, and a renewed emphasis on mental methods and strategies as opposed to recall.


"When you are parents, as adults you have been doing maths for a long time and you have your own experiences and your own already established knowledge that has been inculcated at an early age - it's almost instinctive," she says.

"What you've got to do, and this is where it's hard for parents, is lift yourself out of your own mindset about how you did it and not be worried when your six-year-old can't instinctively tell you what 17 and six is."

She explains that a lot of expectations about what children should be able to do at maths has come down in age range - so they need these new methods to help them understand quite demanding concepts.

She continues: "I think that means that parents have to try to imagine the children developing methods and strategies based on picturing something in their heads."

The methods are actually quite easy, she says, but what can be tricky is changing the parents' attitudes towards them.

And just a few years before the first children to learn by these methods are about to go on and become parents themselves, it seems that ministers could be about to turn back the clock in primary schools.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb has stated publicly that he favours the older methods that he himself was taught by, and that he believes it is not an issue if children do not understand why they work.


Ms Churchman says: "Mr Gibb believes that you can teach standard traditional algorithms and rules, and that it doesn't matter that children don't understand the concepts behind it.

"If he drives through changes backed by that philosophy, that could set primary maths achievement back years."

Boy using abacus Could we see a return to the old methods?

Mr Eastaway also says there are significant risks associated with returning to the old methods, as many children just "didn't get them".

The Department for Education did not wish to comment on the concerns, saying its curriculum review due shortly would set out its plans for mathematics and other subjects.

Currently four out of five children are reaching the level expected of them at the end of primary school, and a third of 11-year-olds are reaching the standard expected of a 13-year-old.

But Ms Churchman says: "We are now ready for the next step change to make sure all children reach the levels expected of them."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    ...I very rarely use a handsaw anymore; I will use an electric jigsaw instead. It's quicker and easier to use. We are just looking at tools to do an arithmetic job so why not give children the most efficient one for the task. It's just a tool - learn it and get on with more interesting maths.
    (I can easily extend the long division method to do algebraic divisions - can I do that with chunking?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Yes they have, I recall helping my daugther with maths homework, only for her teacher to say that while the maths and answers were correct, the method was not - how am I suppossed to know if what my children are taught is different? It's not that I can't learn new techniques, just that there was never any effort to inform parents what methods were being taught so we could support that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    #25 What proportion of the population use trigonometry in their working life? I bet it is very small.

    True, but surely the point of our education system is to allow us to discover our strengths. As they saying goes "you can't make an omellette without cracking eggs".

    I accept if you're struggling with arithmetic then there is no point learning calculus etc. That's why we have streaming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Grid/chunking methods actually add a step - or two or four - to the compact method.

    In the example the pupil still needs to know how to multiply 20x40, 7x40, etc. the old way, in order to get to the right answer.

    In the chunking example the pupil needs to be able to 'see' that 10 goes, that can only come from already knowing the value of numbers.

    A 10,10,10,10,3 by 10,10,7 grid anyone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I have As in A level Maths and Further Maths and an Oxford Physics degree and I still can't do my times tables.

    I remember hating "maths" at primary school. I never really got the point of long division, why it worked and why I might bother!

    My conceptual understanding of numbers didn't come until secondary school where it turned out I was rather good at "maths" after all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I think you are talking about arithmetic here not maths - you know the stuff you need to figure out the cost of a round of drinks and two bags of crisps...

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    If you actually understand mathematics, you can learn new methods easily.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I can see some merit in the box method of mutliplication because it emphasizes the meaning of our positional number system. But I see no reason not to quickly move on to the traditional method of long mutliplication. Yes I know I'm really multipliying 60000 by 500 but I only have to think I'm multiplying 6 by 5, the columns take care of the rest, much easier to process and less prone to error...

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    If you want a better understanding of the approach that kids are being taught you can see examples here - totally useless for anyone going onto sciences, computer software , engineering or design.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    What proportion of the population use trigonometry in their working life? I bet it is very small. We all need to know arithmetic, but very few of us need to solve simultaneous equations. Relevant maths is important and irrelevant maths is a historical indulgence that we subject kids to because we have not moved on. Current maths teaching gets a D- from me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    It would really help if the authorities provided a website with examples of new methods being applied to a few example questions. Parents could then work through the examples with their children and not feel so disconnected.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Personally I consider myself reasonable at maths but got completely lost when my son went to school with the new methods, so did he as he came home with all sorts of different ideas so took a day off work and went to "how we do maths day" at school - the teacher was hopeless and unable to do anything other than copy examples - a waste of a day I've now taught him old style and now he loves maths!

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I taught counting on fingers including addition and subtraction up to 100, to my 4.5yr old in Easter Holidays.But his teacher said he does need to know so early and the method was wrong.What's wrong if he can add,subtract and count? I think the result matters, not the way how you do it.The real math is lost in unending jargon's and methods.This will produce whole bunch of teenagers who hate maths.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I have no idea what chunking/partitioning is and I suspect I personally wouldn't like it - but unlike Phonics - this isn't an idea imposed by a clueless government.

    New ideas are not necessarily good, nor are they necessarily bad - let's judge this one on it's proven track-record.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I find Lyn Churchman's argument unconvincing. If you start out teaching number theory from low enough, the black box methods are easy to understand.

    Now, if you REALLY want to teach mental arithmetic, you should look at Trachtenburg's methods, invented by WWII concentration camp inmate to preserve his sanity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    If these new methods are so good then why are we falling behind other countries ? What methods are the countries ahead of us using ?

    I suspect it may have more to do with our attitude to learning and discipline. In my day if you misbehaved you were removed from the lesson so the teacher could focus upon teaching rather than managing bad behaviour !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I think it would help a great deal if we distinguished between Mathematics and arithmetic. People see 'maths' as a difficult subject, but that covers all from aspects inc. algebra, trigonometry and other concepts. What is lacking is a basic grasp of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division (arithmetic). Try Countdown type number games, they're good mental exercise

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Maths was never my thirty... or was it forty (forté)?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Consistently dropping the fence is not helping our kids. The dilution of mathematics is crippling our children's understanding. The techniques fly in the face of thousands of years of mathematical reasoning. The volume of homework for 7 year olds, shows how little room there is for basic maths in the curriculum, which seems to contradict the worth of trying to reinvent maths teaching.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    @2. Drunken Hobo
    "Tom Lehrer cracked this one years ago!"

    Thanks for the link, Mr Hobo. That really cracked me up!


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