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Use of calculators in primary schools to be reviewed

Schools Minister Nick Gibb has said the use of calculators in primary schools would be looked at as part of the national curriculum review.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Schools Minister Nick Gibb today said the use of calculators in primary schools would be looked at as part of the national curriculum review.

He warned that too many children had come to rely on calculators – and that their mental and written arithmetic had suffered as a result. He said calculators should only be introduced once pupils had a thorough grounding in basic maths, including knowing times tables by heart.

Mr Gibb pointed to evidence from around the world. In the best-performing education systems calculators are used only in the equivalent of upper primary schools.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said:

We need to look at the use of calculators in primary schools.

Children can become too dependent on calculators if they use them at too young an age. They shouldn’t be reaching for a gadget every time they need to do a simple sum.

They need to master addition, subtraction, times tables and division, using quick, reliable written methods. This rigour provides the groundwork for the more difficult maths they will come across later in their education.

You can’t expect children to cope with complicated quadratic equations if they don’t know their times tables by heart.

Without a solid grounding in arithmetic and early maths in primary school, children go on to struggle with basic maths skills throughout their school careers. It also means they leave school without the knowledge they need to complete everyday tasks in their adult lives.

The use of calculators in primary schools must be appropriate.


From Nick Gibb’s speech in a Westminster Hall debate on Wednesday 30 November 2011:

Mr Speaker, we are currently reviewing the National Curriculum to give teachers greater professional freedom over how they organise and teach their subject. 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 this 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 the importance of consistent, efficient methods of calculation being taught throughout the school.


Provisional Key Stage 2 statistics show that one in five 11-year-olds failed to reach the expected level in maths this year.

The importance of maths

There is a growing demand for people with high-level maths skills to become the scientists and engineers of the future, and an increasing need for people with intermediate maths skills in a whole range of disciplines. It is the Government’s intention that within 10 years the vast majority of young people will study maths from 16 to 19.


The recent Ofsted report ‘Good practice in primary mathematics: evidence from 20 successful schools’; clearly shows the importance of pupils knowing multiplication tables properly in order to develop fluency in calculation.
Most of the top schools examined only introduced calculators at the very upper end of primary, and then only for checking the answers for calculations carried out by hand. Often this is at a time when pupils are practising the written methods for long multiplication and division, fractions and percentages.

International evidence

The international evidence is also clear. High-performing jurisdictions around the world limit the use of calculators in the primary maths classroom.

The UK is falling behind internationally in maths.

Over the last 10 years:

  • the UK has fallen from 8th to 28th in maths in the PISA tables.
  • PISA also shows that pupils in Shanghai are around two-and-a-half years ahead of their peers in the UK in maths.
  • pupils from Singapore and Hong Kong are regularly introduced to some mathematical concepts much earlier than their counterparts in the UK.
  • the TIMMS study of maths in 2007 shows that pupils in Massachusetts, Singapore and Hong Kong go on to out-perform pupils in England in international league tables at age 10 and age 14.
  • use of calculators continues to be common in Year 5 in England’s maths classrooms. The 2007 TIMMS study found that only two per cent of Year 5 pupils in England were not allowed to use calculators compared to the international average of 54 per cent.
  • 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 fourth and sixth grade state assessments in Massachusetts (the equivalent in England of Years 5 and 7 respectively) do not permit the use of a calculator. Elementary students learn how to perform basic arithmetic operations without using a calculator.


The Government supports the use of technology to enhance teaching across all subjects:

  • in their recent report, the Joint Mathematical Council for the United Kingdom made clear that the school maths curriculum should include the use of digital technologies for modelling and problem solving. They highlight that existing software such as dynamic graphing and geometry tools, spreadsheets and simulation packages provide a wide range of opportunities for learning mathematics, and they conclude that digital technology is important to “develop the next generation of innovators, creators, scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians on which our future well-being and economy depends.”
  • work is being done by, among others, the Li Ka Shing foundation and the Stanford Research Institute on a pilot programme to use interactive software to support the teaching of maths.
  • 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 that age.

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Published 2 December 2011