Elizabeth Truss in a calculated move on maths

Deborah McGurran
Political editor, East of England

image captionElizabeth Truss is by her own admission "a bit of a geek"

We learnt something new about Elizabeth Truss this week: she is, by her own admission, "a bit of a geek".

"I was a mainstay of my school computer club, and I was happy to spend time programming in BASIC.

"I whiled away many a contented teenage hour doing so," she informed nonplussed MPs.

The revelation came during a Westminster Hall debate, initiated by Ms Truss, into the use of calculators in schools.

The MP for South West Norfolk, who is passionate about maths, is worried that they are being relied on by children from too early an age.

Calculator love

"I would describe this country as in love with the calculator, and from a very early age," she declared.

"There is significant academic evidence that calculator use, too early, has a negative impact on mathematical ability."

She claimed that seven to 11-year-olds are actively encouraged in the national curriculum to use calculators.

And she had an example of a question set for 11-year-olds in which a calculator was allowed:

"These are some prices in a flower shop. Tulips: £1.20 for a bunch; roses: 40p each; daffodils, 55p for a bunch. How many roses can you buy for exactly £2?"

Ms Truss argued that the problem was easy enough to solve without the use of a calculator.

Mental arithmetic

"Most teachers would consider that, at the age of seven or eight, skills in division, multiplication and fractions, and introducing proper, formal methods that can be used for a lifetime, are important in preparing students for life.

"Many of my constituents report that too easy access to calculators is available in local schools"

" I have yet to meet a teenager who is not an expert in using smart phones and making internet searches.

"But I have met quite a few who are not quite so hot on mental arithmetic.

"We need to rebalance the skills that we encourage students to learn."

She revealed that Sweden has a non-calculator exam at the age of 18 while many other European countries waited until children were 11 before allowing their use in school.

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image captionThere is evidence that calculator use too early has a negative impact on mathematical ability

Schools Minister Nick Gibb accepted that there was: "A need to look again at the way in which calculators are used in primary schools."

He said many countries were racing ahead of the UK in mathematical attainment.

He added that pupils in China were working at a level in maths that is two and a half years ahead of that of their peers here in the UK.

"Children will not be able to cope with the more advanced maths that they will encounter in secondary school unless they are fully fluent in the basics, and introducing calculators too early can risk that development," he concluded.

From our research it seems very possible that parliament has never before debated the issue of calculators in schools.

But with the National Curriculum about to be reviewed, Elizabeth Truss thought now was an important time to do so.

From the minister's response it seems as if her concerns are already being taken on board.