Trash the Calculator, It's Back to Basics in Britain

Government orders teachers to spend at least two hours a day on the 'three R's' in an effort to boost basic skills.

Not since former Vice President Dan Quayle added an "e" to the spelling of potato has a politician faced such embarrassment in a school classroom.

When Britain's Minister for Educational Standards Stephen Byers was asked recently in a radio interview to multiply eight by seven, he replied: "I think it's 54."

When told the correct answer is 56, the man charged with ensuring that British schoolchildren sharpen their math skills and improve their spelling and grammar tried to make the best of the situation.

"This is a lesson to us all," he said. "I will spend an hour tomorrow refreshing my memory and learning my times tables."

Mr. Byers may have plenty of company. In a "back to basics" campaign, Prime Minister Tony Blair has ordered sweeping changes to Britain's school curriculum that will require millions of children to spend at least two hours each day on the "three R's."

"There has been a sharp decline in numeracy in recent years," Byers says, "and much the same is true of spelling, grammar, and syntax." He has ordered teachers to ensure that children memorize arithmetic tables and that reading and writing are taught using traditional methods.

In the United States, where curriculum has been seen as predominantly a state and local responsibility, a movement is under way to set up national standards and tests to measure reading and arithmetic skills at Grades 4 and 8. A recent report showed that more than half of students in urban schools in America are failing to master basic skills in reading, mathematics, and science.

But such US standards are unlikely to be adopted until at least 2001. Meanwhile, Britain is moving ahead now.

Calculators for children under 8, for example, have been banned. "Instead," Byers says, "pupils will be expected to be able to do calculations in their heads. Calculators can come later when the children can rely on their own mental skills."

Schools also have been told to do more "whole class" teaching, with pupils facing the teacher instead of sitting around tables in small groups.

In returning to a more traditional classroom philosophy, the government is acting on advice from educator David Reynolds of Newcastle University, head of a government-appointed task force.

In tests of 11-year-olds, 62 percent currently pass the standards in arithmetic. Byers says the government wants the figure to be 75 percent by 2002. And it wants to raise the percentage of students passing achievement tests in spelling, reading, and writing to 80 percent, compared with 57 percent now.

A key to the government's plan will be a new curriculum for training teachers. Sources in the Education Ministry say less stress will be put on subjects such as history, geography, art, and music, and greater emphasis on math, grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

A leaked copy of the document also says teachers must develop in pupils "a sense of literary tradition."

Some 200 "literacy coordinators" are to be appointed throughout Britain to advise schools and make sure that teachers are adopting the new methods.

The approach marks a sharp departure from "progressive" education. Since the 1960s, heavy emphasis has been put on developing pupils' imagination and social awareness rather than traditional achievement.

In a letter sent recently to 20,000 primary-school head teachers, Education Secretary David Blunkett wrote, "For too long, too many primary-school teachers have been prevented from giving literacy and numeracy the attention they deserve because the national curriculum has lacked the very clear focus on the basics, which is crucial in primary education."

He added: "It is no surprise that so many pupils leave primary school ill-equipped in the 'three R's.' "

Teachers' unions support the reforms. But some leading educators warn that simply requiring that more time be spent on numeracy and literacy is not enough.

Nicholas Tate, head of a government-appointed authority in charge of the school curriculum, says the key is "to make better use of the time already allocated."

"We need to have a curriculum which offers flexibility so that teachers and pupils can work on areas of learning that require special attention," he says.

Mr. Tate recalls that before World War II, when learning the three R's was emphasized, literacy and numeracy levels were far from satisfactory. "The educational levels of military conscripts in 1939 vividly illustrated this fact," he says.

Other experts agree that to achieve its goals, the government will have to make certain that classroom time is used effectively.

In a recent report, the government-funded Office for Educational Standards said that on average 10 percent of the day in primary schools was wasted on activities such as registration and moving between classes.

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