Elizabeth Truss MP: Do the maths first

In 1990 I discovered the school computer club and found that programming in Basic and creating pop-up people on the Acorn Archimedes was the most interesting way to spend my lunch break.

It was all built on the concrete realisation of an ideal machine, first imagined in 1936 by Alan Turing. To develop the idea he did not employ the tools of technology — he employed his mind.

IT practice in modern British schools could hardly be more different from Turing’s conceptual breakthrough. Calculators and computers are too often viewed as magic boxes: put in the numbers and out pops the answer. Few question how they work. We are in danger of creating a generation of “sat nav” students reliant on technology but incapable of recreating it.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, recently lambasted what is going on in British Schools, saying “your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made“.

Calculators are rarely used in the majority of schools in the Asian countries that perform best in maths. In Singapore almost no primary school uses calculators.

Britain is the country most in love with the calculator, with only 2% of primary schools not using calculators.

Our mathematics curriculum contains a section on “calculator methods” for 8 to 11-year-olds and is riddled throughout with mentions of how to employ technology in the classroom. Combined with subject content that does not contain enough basic maths practice, this is a recipe for failure, evidenced by our position of 28th in the world league table for maths.

Other countries with similar practices to Britain are now questioning early calculator use. In Massachusetts, the top-performing American state for maths education, pupils learn how to perform basic arithmetic operations independently of calculators. In Alberta, a high-flying Canadian province, there is a focus on mental mathematics. Sweden has a non-calculator paper at senior high school for even its most able pupils.

The government should use the 2013 curriculum review to at least limit the use of calculators in primary schools by making the Fey Stage 2 tests calculator-free and removing the current encouragement from the curriculum. Better still, it should adopt the policy of Massachusetts.

The next step should be to abandon compulsory ICT for 11 to 16-year-olds, which has been criticised by Intellect, the leading computer industry group.

Computer Science is a sophisticated subject that should be taught when pupils have basic mathematics and physics under their belt. Any earlier and the pupil does not have the understanding to grasp the concepts that Turing developed. To regain our computing heritage, Britons need to do the maths first.

Elizabeth Truss is the MP for South West Norfolk.

This post is extracted from a longer article in The Sunday Times on 20 November 2011 under the title Cancel the calculators and make pupils think.