Ancient calculator to make a return as DfE pins maths catch up plan on abacus

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    Lead teacher participants (teachers of Reception, Year 1 and Year 2) will receive training and resources equipping them to give their class a daily short ‘number sense’ session as part of scheduled maths teaching. The programme will last for the whole school year.

    Over the year, children will use a range of materials and representations, including the rekenrek. These will be provided for schools.

    Leading the programme is the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) Director for Primary Mathematics, Debbie Morgan.

    She said: “The rekenrek looks like a simple piece of equipment, but it can be very powerful. Used by skilful, trained teachers it can help children move away from counting in ones to start doing basic mental calculations. We call this ‘number sense’, and research tells us that if children develop fluency and flexibility with number facts and relationships early on, they will make much more progress later, in both maths and other subjects.”

    Teachers in the programme will join local, online communities, led and guided by a teacher or other expert from the local Maths Hub, and engage in regular discussion and experience-sharing as they, and their pupils, progress through the programme.

    Education consultant and former secondary school head of maths Jane Miller questioned whether it was good use of money.

    She agreed “abacuses are a really good tool” but warned they are not easy to use or teach with.

    “People associate abacuses with little children but it’s a much more complex concept. An abacus is not a toy,” said Jane, who is director of education consultancy Impact School Improvement.

    “If you are putting them in schools then teachers need to be trained to use them or they will just sit on shelves gathering dust.”

    She warned now might not be the time to add another new tool to maths teaching and learning.

    Schools need to ensure children have the basic foundations of maths above all else.

    “Teachers will need to have professional learning to underpin how to use abacuses in schools for the best.

    “It’s no use putting them in schools if no one knows how to use them properly.

    “People traditionally think of abacuses for addition but they can also be used for other things and complex calculations.”

    Jane, who has a maths degree and is a former secondary school department head of maths, said she was never taught to use an abacus for teaching or learning, and suspects that’s the case for most teachers.

    She said she was “wary” of the plan without a longer-term view of how and why they will be used.

    Raymond Douse, Director of, Whizz Education, provider of the leading virtual tutor Maths-Whizz. added: “”We all want to see children being given as much support as possible to catch up on lost learning.

    “However, we would rather see the Government leaving the decision to schools as to how taxpayers’ money is being spent.

    “For very young children, and especially blind children, the abacus has a role to play.

    “For the broad majority of school children, however, we believe personalised virtual maths tutoring would be a much more sensible way to spend this money. Let schools and their parents decide.”



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