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Calculators in Schools

Volume 536: debated on Wednesday 30 November 2011

I am pleased to have secured this debate on the use of calculators in school. The Library confirmed to me that there has not been a single debate on this subject in the past 10 years, and I suspect that it goes even further back than that. There may never have been a debate in Parliament about the use of calculators in school, but it is extremely important that the subject is given an airing before the curriculum review in 2013.

To make the position clear, I am not anti-calculator. In fact, I count myself a bit of a geek. I was a mainstay of my school computer club, and I was happy to spend time programming in BASIC, and whiled away many a contented teenage hour doing so. However, I believe that technology has to be used in the right way at the right time and at the right age. I do not believe in the micromanagement of teachers, or telling them what they ought to do in the classroom. On the subject of calculators, we must acknowledge that the Government have actively encouraged their use in school through directions in the national curriculum and calculator use in standard assessment tests. We are therefore not looking at a neutral landscape.

Finally, calculator usage is not the only reason for poor maths performance, and I do not seek to claim that it is. We need to look at teaching standards, the curriculum and pupil motivation, but we can say—and there is significant academic evidence for this—that calculator use too early has a negative impact on mathematical ability. Having observed eight-year-olds being taught multiplication on calculators in an English classroom before they have fully grasped and practised key mathematical operations, I am concerned that things are going on in our schools as a result of Government policy about which we need to be mindful and careful.

Most teachers would consider that consolidating skills at the age of seven or eight 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. Failure to secure good basics can result in problems later in school, and we have only to look at the PISA––programme for international student assessment—international league tables, in which Britain is in 28th place, to see that we have a problem.

It is not just a problem in maths. We know that good, early maths helps to develop both logical thinking and skills in abstraction, which are useful in all kinds of analytical subjects and jobs. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) has been very effective in raising the issue of financial capability and how people can manage their bank accounts, mortgages and loans. To do so, they need a good understanding of arithmetic and mathematics. They need to be able to ready-reckon in their head the purchase they are making or the financial product they are buying. If we do not lay out those basics early on, as a country we will struggle.

This is part of a general problem that we have with technology, which has been highlighted by various IT and technology companies, and by Eric Schmidt of Google. Too often in our schools, technology is seen as a magic box that students use, rather than a tool: they need to understand how something operates, learn to programme it and think for themselves. We are in danger of getting into a sat-nav process whereby students are led through a series of steps, rather than understanding programming and how IT works. On the subject of learning to use IT in 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.

What is in the national curriculum? For seven to 11-year-olds—key stage 2—there is a separate section in the national curriculum on calculator methods. That is an early age at which to teach such methods compared with other countries. The national curriculum is specific about how that ought to be taught—it is pretty dirigiste. Not only are calculator methods set out in the curriculum and encouraged as part of what older primary schoolchildren learn, but they are tested at 11. However, many questions in the test for 11-year-olds do not require a calculator to answer them. I have a sample question from the “calculator allowed” test in mathematics for 2010:

“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?”

Most Members in the Chamber would be able to work that out without using a calculator. That kind of question should encourage thinking and mental arithmetic but, unfortunately, in the tests at the moment, students are asked to use calculator for basic sums.

According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2007, calculator use by 10-year-olds in England is the highest of any country in the study. We are an outlier on the matter, and only 2% of 10-year-olds in primary schools in England do not use calculators. If we look at the top-performing countries in PISA 2009, which is generally reckoned to be the most objective international comparison, because all students sit the same test, which they do not do in other studies, we can see lower calculator use and stronger resistance to calculators by teachers in those schools. Zhangzhou, China is the top performer, but that was not covered in the TIMSS test, so I cannot comment on that, but Singapore was number two, and 98% of its 10-year-olds do not use calculators in school. Hong Kong was number three, where 50% of its pupils do not use calculators, and there are very strict limitations on those who do use them to prevent their use for basic computational work. Korea was number four and although its 10-year-olds were not included in the study, even their 14-year-olds had a low usage of calculators. China Taipei was number five.

In 2008, the Department for Children, Schools and Families did a comparative study that showed that teachers felt great caution about the use of calculators in schools. Similarly, the use of calculators in schools in Austria and Germany is very low. Generally speaking, international studies show that calculators get introduced at about the age of nine to 11, and for specific purposes. They are not used for those basic arithmetical operations that I described in the SATs test, but for those cases where only a calculator can be used.

Traditionally, Anglophone and Scandinavian countries have higher calculator use—countries such as the US, Denmark, Australia, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, but nowhere has such high usage as England. We really are the most keen on calculators. I would describe this country as in love with the calculator, and from a very early age. The use of calculators in other countries has prompted much academic debate, and critiques about it appear in the US, the UK and Scandinavia on both sides of the argument. There is a growing international debate about the use of technology and how we inculcate the basic skills that people need to think before they go on to use technology, rather than thinking of the calculator as a magic box that will solve the answer to every question.

The Massachusetts curriculum—it is the top-performing state in the US—places restrictions on calculator use and says that it cannot be used for basic arithmetic operations. Sweden has a non-calculator exam at the age of 18. Alberta, one of the top-performing Canadian provinces, has a strong focus on mental mathematics. A lot of the Anglophone and Scandinavian countries are now beginning to think about how excessive calculator use at an early age may have impacted on standards in maths and the ability to do maths.

We all know that the west is facing a strong challenge from the east, particularly in respect of human capital and skills and capabilities. All countries would be wise to consider why the east’s performance, particularly in subjects such as maths and science, is outstripping that of the western world. I urge the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), to consider the place of calculators in the curriculum. We should remove calculator methods from the teaching of children as young as seven and eight, because that is taking time away from getting a good grounding in the basics. If one speaks to teachers in high school, they will often say that students arriving at their schools are not prepared in the basics due to a lack of practice. My fear is that by having a strong section on calculator methods in the curriculum we are taking away time that could be used on preparing children in those basics.

We should also consider the provision of calculators in the SATs tests. I know that there are questions about the overall standards in the SATs. I also know that the Minister is considering them and that he is keen to see more formal methods applied in the curriculum so that pupils learn proper long multiplication and long division. We also need to consider other parts of the curriculum that may be taking up time from that valuable practice in getting the basics right.

Our record is not good. We are 28th in the world according to the PISA league tables, and an outlier according to the OECD in terms of the number of 16 to 18-year-olds studying maths, because, I believe, the start of their maths career was not very good. If we want to get better at maths in this country, we need to start to get those basics right, so we can get more people to do maths. The Chancellor announced yesterday that maths free schools would be an option at 16 to 18 years, but if we do not have the confidence in performing those basic mathematical operations, I fear that we will be unable to get students up to the level to perform later on.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) on securing this excellent debate. I thank her for being kind enough to allow me to make some supportive comments.

As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on financial education, I absolutely support this call about calculator use because the absolute cornerstone and bedrock to making the next generation of consumers savvy, quick-thinking and financially literate is having a good grasp of mental arithmetic. Without that, it will be impossible for us to deliver improved levels of financial education.

I also speak as a former employer. Time and time again in my business, we almost had to start again with mental arithmetic when we employed people. Mental arithmetic was important for my business, as it is for businesses right across the country. When I meet representatives of businesses of different sizes that frustration is borne out by experience.

Mathematical ability is also incredibly important for personal confidence. This week, I visited an excellent school, Sevenfields, in my constituency. It has transformed itself into an outstanding school, and the main driver behind that is confidence in subjects such as maths, driven by mental arithmetic. Old-fashioned that may be, but it is making a real difference in that school. It is also important to foster personal confidence in students to embrace mathematics. We have been struggling for too long to acquire the number of students who wish to take on maths and progress further. If people can conquer mental arithmetic, they then have the confidence to progress further in maths. In common with my hon. Friend, I am a bit of geek in this respect.

Confidence in maths drives forward the ability to acquire entrepreneurial skills. We see from the “Young Apprentice” TV programme that those young people with good mental arithmetic do particularly well in many of the tasks, particularly haggling. I recall from when I was running my business the number of times when I met suppliers who simply could not do mental arithmetic. They relied on a calculator, which they were embarrassed to use in front of me and which allowed me to run rings round them, and make reasonably good profit margins. That is a serious observation, because that was not just a one-off, but happened time and time again.

For the sake of driving up maths standards, improving confidence and supporting our ongoing financial education campaign, I urge the Minister to get behind this campaign to promote mental arithmetic skills.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) on securing this interesting debate on a topic of great importance to us all. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) about the importance of mathematics not just in providing progression to more sophisticated maths, but in day-to-day operation of haggling and securing a good deal. I know that what he said from his own business experience is absolutely right, and I am sure that that lack is more pervasive in our economy than people suspect.

My hon. Friend’s excellent opening speech reiterated many of the same points that she made in her article published in The Sunday Times last week entitled, “Cancel the calculators and make pupils think”. I broadly agree with her analysis, and in particular her astute observations on how calculators are overused in classrooms in England. I also agree with her suggestion that there is much that we can learn from the best-performing nations and regions around the world; her analysis of Britain’s position in international rankings when it comes to maths; and her conclusion that we need to look again at the way in which calculators are used in primary schools.

Getting mathematics teaching right at an early age is of prime importance, and securing the foundations of mathematical understanding early at primary school will help our pupils to gain mathematical fluency and achieve at GCSE level and beyond. The modern work force demands people with high levels of mathematical ability as employment opportunities become increasingly technological and the importance of the internet continues to grow. There is a growing demand for people with high-level maths skills to become the scientists and engineers of the future. There is an increasing need for people with intermediate maths skills in a whole range of disciplines. That is why the Secretary of State has said that it is the Government’s intention that within 10 years the vast majority of young people will study maths from the age of 16 to 19.

My hon. Friend for South West Norfolk is right that this country is an outlier in the number of students continuing to study maths beyond the age of 16. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, the UK is falling behind internationally. I make no apologies for reminding other hon. Members—it is my hon. Friend who I am reminding—that over the past 10 years the United Kingdom has dropped down the international league table of school performance, falling from eighth to 28th in maths. PISA results show that many countries are racing ahead of the UK in mathematical attainment. Pupils in Shanghai are working at a level in maths that is about two and a half years ahead of that of their peers in the UK. Pupils from Singapore and Hong Kong are regularly introduced to some mathematical concepts much earlier than their counterparts are in England.

I saw that happening on a visit to a Taiwanese school. The reason behind it was that the Taiwanese felt it was so essential to their economy to embrace new technologies. They thought that that was the way to improve mathematical and science skills, which was so important to them.

My hon. Friend makes his point very eloquently. The debate is not just about the individual’s success in life—there is much evidence that those with advanced mathematical skills secure better employment prospects and higher standards of living—but that as a country we need to get it right, which we have not yet done.

As the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study—or TIMSS—study of maths has shown, those pupils in Singapore and Hong Kong go on to outperform pupils in England in international league tables. As has been said, if we are to compete internationally, it is crucial that we equip our young people with such essential maths skills.

The foundation for more advanced mathematical and scientific study is built in primary school, where pupils can develop a love of, and a fascination with, mathematics. Unfortunately, far too many children leave primary school convinced that they “can’t do” maths. Provisional key stage 2 data for the 2011 test year shows that only 80% of pupils reached the expected level in maths, and an even lower proportion reached level 5. Without a solid grounding in arithmetic and early maths in primary school, children go on to struggle with basic mathematical skills throughout their school careers and their adult lives. We cannot allow children to fall behind at that early stage. It is vital that pupils are fluent and confident in calculation before they leave primary school. We cannot expect children to be able to cope with the demands of complicated quadratic equations if they do not have quick and accurate recall of multiplication tables. Indeed, it is not possible to do long division, without being fluent in them.

Does the Minister agree that understanding basic operations enables one to check calculations? For example, when purchasing an item or considering a mortgage, people can check whether their calculator is right, which provides a sense check. When people have those basic skills, they are equipped for all such difficult situations in later life.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. Being fluent in the multiplication tables right up to 12 times 12—there are, after all, 12 months in the year and there are 12 in a dozen, which are still frequently used quantities regardless of decimalisation—gives people an instinct for numbers. They can therefore instinctively spot where something is wrong—for example, that the dosage a nurse gives to a patient is out by a factor of five, 10 or 20—because they are used to numbers and do not have to look things up on a chart or use a machine to calculate whether a number is right. It is to provide that instinctive understanding that such basic calculations and repeated practice at primary school are so important.

I also agree with my hon. Friend that we should not hinder pupils’ understanding of calculation by allowing them to become dependent on calculators too early. Ofsted recently conducted a survey of 20 top-performing primary schools in maths in the country. The resulting report, entitled “Good Practice in Primary Mathematics: Evidence from 20 Successful Schools”, clearly shows the importance of pupils knowing their times tables properly to develop fluency in calculation. Most of the top-performing schools visited for that study introduced calculators only at the very upper end of primary school, and then only to check the answers for calculations carried out by hand. That is often a time when pupils are practising written methods for long multiplication and long division, and adding, multiplying, dividing and subtracting fractions. Finding the common denominator when trying to add one seventh and one eighth—56—is significantly harder and more boring if children do not know their multiplication tables by heart.

The international evidence is also clear. High-performing jurisdictions around the world, as my hon. Friend so eloquently said in her well-researched speech and article, would limit the use of calculators in the primary mathematics classroom. Guiding principles for the Massachusetts, Singapore and Hong Kong curricula state that calculators should not be used as a replacement for basic understanding and skills. Moreover, the 4th and 6th grade state assessments in Massachusetts, which are the equivalent of years 5 and 7 in this country, do not permit the use of a calculator. Elementary students learn how to perform basic arithmetical operations without using a calculator. Evidence from the most successful educational systems around the world suggests that calculators should be introduced only once pupils have a thorough grounding in number facts or number bonds, including knowing their multiplication tables by heart, and that calculators should be used only to support the teaching of mathematics where the aim is to focus on solving a problem rather than on the process of calculation.

It is crucial that pupils are fluent in using efficient written methods to perform calculations and do not reach for a calculator when faced with a simple addition or multiplication. The most efficient written methods, such as columnar addition and subtraction, allow a pupil to perform calculations quickly. Pupils should be taught them as soon as possible, and not spend years using intermediate methods, such as chunking.

We are currently reviewing the national curriculum to give teachers greater professional freedom over how they organise and teach their subject, and my hon. Friend’s analysis of the key stage 2 curriculum was very revealing. The review will be informed by best international practice, and will draw on other evidence about the knowledge children need to deepen their understanding at each stage of their education. Alongside the review, we are looking at how arithmetic is taught in school by engaging in an informal dialogue with maths professionals. Some key areas of consensus are emerging—namely, that there needs to be a renewed focus on quick recall of number facts, such as multiplication tables, and on the importance of consistent, efficient methods of calculation being taught throughout the school.

I believe that technology can be used to enhance teaching across all subjects. In his speech to the Royal Society earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State highlighted the wonderful work being done by, among others, the Li Ka Shing Foundation and the highly respected Stanford Research Institute International on a pilot programme to use interactive software to support the teaching of maths. He also highlighted how computer games developed by Marcus du Sautoy are enabling children to engage with complex mathematical problems that would hitherto have been thought too advanced for them to tackle at such an age.

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 the development of that fluency. Our focus on getting maths right in primary school also requires a focus on teaching quality, as my hon. Friend hinted at in her analysis of what matters in education. One of the most important characteristics of the best performing education systems around the world is that they recruit the best possible people into teaching and provide them with high-quality professional development. There is clear consensus in the maths community that teachers must have a deep understanding of maths to be fully effective.

Our White Paper “The Importance of Teaching” set out the Government’s commitment to provide additional support for the uptake of mathematics and the sciences. In June, the Secretary of State announced that the Government will invest £135 million over the spending review period to support that aim. Much of that will go towards improving the skills of existing teachers. We have followed the example of Finland by expanding Teach First and by providing extra support for top graduates in maths and science to enter teaching.

We have also made the following commitments in the initial teacher training strategy published earlier this month. From 2012-13, we will prioritise the allocation of places to courses with a maths and science specialism over generalist primary courses. That will encourage ITT providers—universities—to offer specialist, rather than generalist, courses. We will fund £43 million in bursaries for new primary teachers, some of which will go to trainees who are training on primary courses that include a specialism. We will offer schools the opportunity to train their own primary specialist teachers, and then employ them as teachers. For 2013-14, we expect to introduce additional financial incentives for trainees who take a maths, science or language specialism as part of their primary ITT course and have a good A-level in maths, a science subject or a language.

The Government have just announced £600 million to be spent on building an additional 100 new free schools by the end of the Parliament. These new schools will include specialist maths schools for pupils between 16 and 18, and their aim will be to produce the outstanding mathematicians of the future. We are funding two cohorts of teachers to undertake the maths specialist teacher programme, which aims to improve the practice and efficacy of primary mathematics teaching. We are also part-funding two further cohorts of the programme.

Evidence around the world clearly shows that high-performing nations ensure that children receive a first-class maths education when it is based on a solid foundation of essential principles of number and calculation. That is why we are making primary-level maths a priority: we are encouraging early mastery of multiplication tables and written calculation methods, limiting the use of calculators, and raising the quality of teaching. Giving children a solid understanding of basic mathematical skills will encourage higher achievement and greater enjoyment in maths, and give every child the best possible start to their school career.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.