Government bans calculators from primary maths tests

Child doing sums Ministers say children should be fluent in basic arithmetic before using calculators

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The government says calculators will be banned in maths tests for 11-year-olds in England from 2014.

Education and Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss said pupils should only use them once they were confident in basic mathematical skills.

The move follows a government review of calculator use in primary schools.

Teaching unions responded that fluent use of calculators was essential, with the NUT's Christine Blower calling the ban "a retrograde step".

Ms Truss said an over-reliance on calculators meant children missed the rigorous grounding in mental and written arithmetic they needed to progress.

"All young children should be confident with methods of addition, subtraction, times tables and division before they pick up the calculator to work out more complex sums," she said.

"By banning calculators in the maths test, we will reduce the dependency on them in the classroom for the most basic sums."

Complex problems

She said maths "influences all spheres of our daily lives".

"The irony is that while maths is all around us, it seems to have become acceptable to be 'bad with numbers'," Ms Truss said.

"The habit of simply reaching for the calculator to work things out only serves to worsen that problem."

Prof Celia Hoyles, director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, said: "Children develop greater confidence and success in mathematics if they know a range of methods - for example mental and written calculation alongside quick recall of relevant number facts.

"It is important that calculators are used appropriately, so children do not become dependent on them for arithmetic but at the same time are able to use them as a tool to support their own problem solving."

But teaching unions argued banning calculator use in the tests would risk pupils' ability to use them to tackle more complex mathematical problems.

Christine Blower, general secretary National Union of Teachers, said: "It is entirely appropriate for children in primary school to learn to use a range of tools to solve maths problems and the skill of deciding which tool and method to use for a particular problem is an important one.

"It may not be appropriate to use calculators for the whole of the maths test paper, but it is a retrograde step to ban them completely as it will diminish the skills set for primary pupils and leave them floundering in secondary school".

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "As long as they alter the test design and marking to reflect the changed conditions, it shouldn't be too disturbing. One of the papers is already done without calculators of course.

"It is indeed good to be sure that children can perform routine calculations in their heads, but the advantage of a limited use of calculators is that children can focus on the problem itself. "

Chris Keates, general secretary of the Nasuwt union, said: "If the test is a mental arithmetic test, then clearly you wouldn't expect children to have calculators, but the government needs to come clean about what its expectations are for the maths curriculum and what kind of skills it believes young people need in the 21st Century.

"Surely we should be expecting to nurture from an early age skills in young people to master complex mathematical challenges. This should include learning how to use the tools which can support them in that process."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    But what about the endless fun of typing in 5318008 and showing it to your mates?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    A few years ago I was in a shop and the person behind the counter tried to charge my friend over £10 for a paper and a Mars Bars. When he said "you're made a mistake" she replied "I've not, it's on the till, so it must be right".

    You see, you can't argue with the calculator.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    With the chunking or grid method you need instinctive confidence in you times tables so why not teach them first whilst the young brains are in fervent search of knowledge as was done in the past.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    This is long overdue. Calculators have a place at more advanced levels but good mental arithmetic skills at that stage help students realise when they've hit the wrong key.
    I've had to routinely correct ridiculous errors made by supposedly highly qualified science graduates who had great faith in the magic boxes that spit out the answers but absolutely no sense of basic arithmetic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Many children now do an extra level 6 SATS test in their final primary year which covers some first year secondary maths. The proposed primary maths curriculum makes this work the norm for Year 6. No teacher gives a calculator until a child is secure in basic methods and then only for certain work such as more complex percentages. This decision risks holding back more able mathemeticians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I always used to lose my calculator in primary school - luckily as a side effect my mental arithmetic is great! I believe it is important to have a good idea of roughly what the answer will be before you punch it into the calculator (for example, the last digit and how long the number should be) so that when you miss-key and get 2 + 2 = 3.14159265 you know to do it again!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    This story, along with many of the previous comments, highlight the main issue here; the lack of understanding of what being numerate means compared to having mathematical skills. By the age of 11 most students 'should' be numerate therefore the key assessment should test whether they are developing sound mathematical skills; the use of logic, problem solving skills etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I was taught when I was at school that the skill in maths was knowing what numbers to put in the calculator, in order to get the answer. So long as the pupil understands how to get the answer does it really matter whether it is calculated mentally or with a calculator?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Children should learn simple mental arithmatic - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of integers. They should learn how numbers work, but I see no point in slaving over pointless long division or multiplication - that's what calculators are for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Blaming the teachers again! Kids in school DO learn their times tables & do mental arithmetic, BUT when I was at school my parents did times tables with me when I got home too! Kids are only in the school for a few hours a day & teachers have to cover a huge range of subjects and skills - they can't just do maths all day! If parents don't help at home kids will never become mathematically fluent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    That's a shame I was counting on using mine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The teachers oppose the change; with the interests of the children uppermost in their minds, I'm sure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Relying on the use of a calculator without basic mathematics skills leads to an inability to spot keyboard typing errors. If the calculator says 2 + 2 = 5, then the correct answer is taken as 5.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Christine Blower: "the skill of deciding which tool and method to use for a particular problem is an important one"

    Calculators are there to make hard jobs easier. Mental arithmetic is the more important tool in everyday life, as well as being the tool for deciding whether or not a calculator is appropriate in any given situation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Soon we'll be letting children text their answers to exams. "lol"

    Texts will cost £1.50 on top of your standard rate charge...

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I have an A* in A-level maths and an A in further maths, I do not know my timestables and still have to go to a value of 10 to add/take away. Mathematical ability and arithmetical ability although linked as they both involve numbers are two entirely different skills.
    It is appropriate to use a calculator for some tasks even at age 11, and now at 20 and studying for an MChem even for 6 + 13

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    You still need to understand mathematical concepts to be able to use a calculator. 11 year olds have a wonderfully balanced approach - a calculator paper, a non-calculator paper and a mental test.

    There are hundreds of day-to-day situations where it would be quicker to calculate mentally, as there are hundreds of day-to-day situations when it would be quicker to use a calculator.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I'm split. In the modern world, calculators are essential to working with any kind of higher level of mathematics. However, it is also a good thing for students to be able to understand the basics before they can move onto the more advanced theory and practical applications. Children (and adults) should be familiar both with and without calculators, in my opinion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I can't believe it will take until 2014 for this to come into force. Are our 11 years old really that bad or are the teachers not good enough to teach without calculators? Calculators for 11 years olds should be banned from this morning 2012, not 2014

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    At last common sense

    Calculators out of exams

    Just hope they ban written work done on PC's as well, as handwriting is so bad.

    Get back to basics before we allow children access to new technology


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