Government bans calculators in tests for 11-year-olds

Published on Friday, 09 November 2012 10:46
Posted by Vicki Mitchem

Education and Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss today announced that calculators would be banned in maths tests for 11-year-olds from 2014.

She warned that pupils were using calculators too much too soon at primary school – the current curriculum suggests introducing them at seven. The draft primary Programme of Study published last June was clear that calculators should not be introduced until late primary to, for instance, convert a simple fraction to a decimal fraction (3/8 = 0.375).

Ten-year-olds in England are among the highest users of calculators in the world – 98 per cent are allowed to use them in maths lessons, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in 2007. This compares to the international average of 46 per cent of 10-year-olds allowed to use them in classes.

She said that as a result children were not getting the rigorous grounding in mental and written arithmetic they needed to progress.

Ms Truss said calculators should be introduced only when pupils were confident in the basics, such as knowing times tables off by heart, and understood the methods to add, subtract, multiply and divide. The new primary curriculum recommends introducing calculators at the end of primary school and only when pupils are secure in written and mental arithmetic.

The announcement is part of the Government's drive to restore rigour into maths – from primary school through to post-16 education.

Independent evidence shows a worrying decline in standards in the subject:

  • England has fallen from 24th to 27th in PISA rankings from 2006 to 2009 while a number of OECD countries have risen up the rankings.
  • England is now rated 26th out of 34 leading nations for the number of 15-year-olds achieving top grades in maths, according to a Sutton Trust report this year.King's College research this year showed that the number of 11- to 14-year-olds with a poor grasp of basic calculation had more than doubled over the last 30 years.
  • Almost a third of employers surveyed by the CBI this year said they were unhappy with the numeracy skills of school leavers.

Education and Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss said:

Maths influences all spheres of our daily lives, from working out the change from your shopping to an architect's calculations in designing the latest London skyscraper.

The irony is that while maths is all around us, it seems to have become acceptable to be 'bad with numbers'. The habit of simply reaching for the calculator to work things out only serves to worsen that problem.

All young children should be confident with methods of addition, subtraction, times tables and division before they pick up the calculator to work out more complex sums. By banning calculators in the maths test, we will reduce the dependency on them in the classroom for the most basic sums. Children will have a solid grounding in the basics so they can grow up to be comfortable with the maths they will need in their adult lives.

The Government's aim to reduce the dependency on calculators is backed by evidence from the world's leading jurisdictions for maths. In Massachusetts, Singapore and Hong Kong:

The guiding principles of their curricula state calculators should not be used as a replacement for basic understanding and skills.

Tests for 10- and 12-year-olds in Massachusetts do not allow calculators. In Hong Kong, calculators are not allowed in tests for nine- and 11-year-olds. Elementary students learn how to perform basic arithmetic operations without using a calculator.

Pupils in Massachusetts, Singapore and Hong Kong out-perform pupils in England in international league tables at age 10 and age 14, according to the 2007 TIMMS. Massachusetts is set by TIMMS as the benchmark so is not given a ranking. Hong Kong is ranked top, with Singapore second. England is seventh.

Greg Wallace, Executive Principal of the Best Start Federation, said:

We have to ensure all children can perform calculations using efficient written methods. Children need to develop fluency with these concrete methods so that they can perform pencil and paper calculations with ease. Removing the calculator from the papers will increase the focus on developing children's fluency in the written number operations.

Nobody is saying that calculators do not have many benefits; nor are calculators being banned from primary schools. Instead, a clear signal is being given to increase the focus on ensuring every child can successfully perform the relevant written methods for the core number operations. This is a very welcome development.

Professor Celia Hoyles OBE, Director of the National Centre for the Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, said:

Children develop greater confidence and success in mathematics if they know a range of methods; for example mental and written calculation alongside quick recall of relevant number facts.

It is important that calculators are used appropriately: so children do not become dependent on them for arithmetic but at the same time are able to use them as a tool to support their own problem solving.

The Government has consulted with Ofqual, the exams regulator, on the changes. The Standards and Testing Agency will work closely with Ofqual to ensure the comparability and reliability of the new tests ensuring they meet the regulator's criteria. Pupils will sit them in the summer of 2014.


There are currently three maths tests at the end of Key Stage 2, one of which allows calculators.

Examples of test questions which allow a calculator include:

Q. Tickets for a school play cost £2.75 each. Dev sold 23 tickets. How much ticket money did Dev collect?
A. £63.25

Q. Holly collected £77 altogether from selling tickets. How many tickets did she sell?
A. 28 tickets

Source: ©DfE

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