Having spent yesterday listening to the inspirational children's author and former children's laureate Michael Rosen, I returned home to find yet another controversial education story occupying the media and generating a myriad of comment online.
Michael's key theme, as he advocated developing talk through poetry and gave a rousing critique on government policy on reading, was that changes in the way we educate our children should be based on real evidence from research rather than the whims of ministers. I wonder what evidence the latest decision on calculator use has been based on. Yes, calculators are used more in this country than in others, possibly because the National Curriculum requires schools to teach children how to use them. But are our year 6 children so much poorer at mental arithmetic than those of other countries who don't introduce calculators or is the move based on uneducated guesses?
I can't say that I am particularly distressed about the proposed changes. Unless you are completely rooted in that fictional golden age of education, you would want children to be taught how to use anything that helps them to learn, to reason, to solve problems. That includes having good mental strategies and knowledge as well as knowing how to operate a calculator. In my school, calculator use is mainly for children to check the calculations they have already done or to work with real life situations where the numbers involved are so big that children would spend more of their time calculating than carrying out the problem solving learning objective.
I place great score though on children developing mental knowledge and strategies. Knowledge is their number bonds to ten and to twenty, their times tables up to 10 x 10 (not sure why 12 x 12 is still required when we no longer use dozens or have twelve pennies in a shilling.) Strategies are those that allow them to use that knowledge such as 3 + 4 = 7 to solve 30 + 40. If children have these then it frees up time and thinking to tackle the real maths. For instance, if we take two children learning how to multiply using the grid method where one knows their tables well whilst the other struggles, one will get far more practice as they solely have to deal with the new method whilst the other will often lose sight of the method as they struggle to work out each stage of the calculation.
I can't really see what difference taking the calculator away from the second SATs paper will have. There is already a mental maths paper accounting for 20% of the marks. The incentive for schools to develop mental maths is there already. As a KS2 maths SATs marker of many years, I have seen an improvement in scores over the years. What do the national results of the mental papers tell us about children's mental ability in year 6? Has someone done the maths?
The problem with mental maths is that, like all learning, it needs to be used on a regular basis. These days, how many times do we carry out mental calculations as opposed to the pre-computer age. The cash tills at the supermarket work out our change for us, the online internet shopping site adds up our orders. Let's show children how to use calculators and the other electronic ways of calculating, but lets keep that regular use of mental maths going through a child's education.