Maths expert calls for algebra to be taught in primary schools

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SCHOOL pupils should know their times tables by the age of seven, and learn algebra and probability early on, according to a maths expert.

Professor David Burghes warned that re-vamping secondary school maths was simply “putting a sticking plaster on the cracks” and that changes need to be made in primary schools.

He warned that too many primary school teachers have only studied maths to GCSE, and do not have a good enough understanding of the subject.

As a result, children eventually end up either bored, or struggling with maths. Prof Burghes has puts forward proposals for a new maths curriculum for primary schools on behalf of the Politeia think-tank.

He said that England should learn from high-performing nations such as Finland, Japan and Singapore, where teachers have better maths skills and pupils must learn key topics by certain ages.

Far less is expected of pupils in England, and too much time is spent learning about simple topics like space and shape, rather than algebra, he said.

“The quality of the mathematical knowledge of teachers remains an important influence,” Prof Burghes says “The majority of entrants to the profession have only a GCSE C grade as their highest mathematical qualification.

“The emphasis throughout 
primary is on numeracy and accessible topics in, for example, shape and space, rather than the provision of a mathematical foundation (including algebra) on which to build in the secondary sector.”

Prof Burghes adds: “We have too few teachers at primary school with a real understanding of mathematics, leading to children not being fully extended; the pupils continue into the secondary stage, where there is a shortage of adequately trained mathematicians so that many of them are either bored or not coping. This results in not enough students in the sixth form taking mathematics and low numbers of students undertaking mathematics or mathematics-related degrees at universities.

The cycle continues with not enough mathematically well qualified young people entering the teaching profession.”

Prof Burghes, professor of mathematics teaching at Plymouth University, sets out proposals for a new maths curriculum that would see children learn their times tables up to 10 times 10 by the end of Year Two, aged seven.

By this time they would also have learnt how to use numbers up to 100, as well as add, subtract, multiply and divide. Algebra should be introduced at an early age, Prof Burghes says, similar to other high-performing nations, and pupils should be able to solve simple equations and inequalities by the time they are aged eight.

At this age they should also be able to calculate simple probabilities, he adds. But he says fractions should not be introduced in the first year of primary school, and left until a year later.

By the time they are 11, and ready to go to secondary school, pupils should be able to multiply and divide fractions, use simple percentages, decimals, as well understand ideas such as radius, diameter and circumference of a circle.

Ministers announced plans for a new back-to-basics primary maths curriculum in June.

Under the proposals, pupils will be expected to know all their times tables up to 12 times 12 by age nine, whereas under the current system they should know their tables up to 10 times 10 by the end of primary school.

By the age of seven, children will be expected to have memorised all so-called “number bonds” –simple addition and subtraction sums. By the time they are 11, children will be expected to be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions and decimals.