Will banning calculators raise maths performance?

9 November 2012

Last month we learned how some MPs struggle with relatively simple maths problems. According to the Government this morning, the same problem is becoming increasingly prevalent among England's 11-14 year-olds.

Of course, we still need to be wary when judging the UK's relative position in the world when it comes to maths performance. Last month the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority expressed concern over the Government's claims that we've slumped in the international league tables.

Nevertheless, to partly address the issue the Department for Education (DfE) has announced that calculators would be banned in maths tests for 11 year-olds from 2014.

The current national curriculum recommends introducing calculators at the age of seven. Today's announcement follows a review set up last year which concluded in June 2012 that:

"Calculators should not be used as a substitute for pupils having poor written and mental arithmetic. Calculators should therefore only be introduced near the end of primary, and only for those pupils who are secure in written and mental arithmetic to allow them to explore more complex problems"

One claim from the Government's press release was circulated by most of the morning's papers:

"Around 98% of 10-year-olds in England are allowed to use calculators in maths lessons, compared to an international average of 46% according to research published in 2007"

So where's this from? Full credit to the DfE - the source is handily provided in their press release.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) - a four-yearly worldwide research project involving nearly half a million students in 59 countries - is provided as the source. 

Based on teachers reporting whether or not calculators were permitted in maths lessons, the latest study - conducted in 2007 - was able to determine the proportion of students in over 50 of the participant countries who were permitted use of the devices.

Two age cohorts were examined: Grade 4 (year 5 in England for 9/10 year-olds, towards the end of primary school) and Grade 8 (year 9 in England for 13/14 year-olds).

The results for year 5 confirm the DfT's figures are correct. In fact, England rank bottom of all sampled countries for restricting calculator use in the maths classroom:

By the eighth grade (year 9 in England), almost no English students' teachers reported restricting the use of calculators. Conversely, 80% of Kuwaiti pupils' teachers were still not permitting use at this stage.

The DfT claim that England is to join 'high performers like Hong Kong' in restricting calculator use. While it's true that calculator restrictions are tighter in Hong Kong, and that it places third on the PISA rankings, this isn't to say that restricting calculator use necessarily leads to better results if we use PISA as a standard.

Hungary and Slovenia, for instance, both restrict calculator use significantly more than average - but place 29th and 20th on the PISA rankings respectively, some way behind New Zealand, for instance, who place 13th on PISA rankings but are among the least restrictive when it comes to calculator use.

This isn't to say calculators aren't a factor in maths attainment, but there's no simple correlation between banning calculators in the classroom and higher attainment without other factors likely to be at work.

The figures for calculator restrictions are, of course, five years old now. The National Foundation for Educational Research - who publish the figures - informed Full Fact that the 2011 updates of all the figures will be available on 11 December this year.

We'll update our calculations then.

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