Government buying 360,000 abacuses for £1.4million to help kids catch up on maths

The department is looking at using “rekenrek” style abacuse

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The Government is planning to buy abacuses for primary schools to help children catch up on lost maths learning.

But some maths teachers and experts have questioned the idea, which estimates say comes with a £1.4m price tag, WalesOnline reported.

They warn that while abacuses may look simple, the beaded counting tools are not easy to use properly and teachers would need proper training.

If not, the devices could just gather dust on shelves, or worse, children could just become more confused and lose confidence.

The Department for Education is considering buying up to 360,000 abacuses to be used in up to 6,000 schools in England as part of catch up after covid education disruption.

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The department is looking at using “rekenrek” style abacuses from the start of next term as part of a year-long “mastering number” programme which will offer places for reception, year one and two teachers in up to 6,000 schools.

Suppliers are being sought to provide 360,000 abacuses which must have two rows, each with five red and five white beads.

The beads must be “the flat type” not round, as children are said to find these easier to move. The DofE tender is in the early stages and the department has not said how much it will spend.

Some estimates cost it at £1,4m for 360,000 abacuses costing between £4 and £7 each.

Lead teacher participants (teachers of Reception, Year 1 and Year 2) will receive training and resources equipping them to give their class a daily short ‘number sense’ session as part of scheduled maths teaching. The programme will last for the whole school year.

Over the year, children will use a range of materials and representations, including the rekenrek. These will be provided for schools.

Leading the programme is the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) Director for Primary Mathematics, Debbie Morgan.

She said: "The rekenrek looks like a simple piece of equipment, but it can be very powerful. Used by skilful, trained teachers it can help children move away from counting in ones to start doing basic mental calculations. We call this ‘number sense’, and research tells us that if children develop fluency and flexibility with number facts and relationships early on, they will make much more progress later, in both maths and other subjects."

Teachers in the programme will join local, online communities, led and guided by a teacher or other expert from the local Maths Hub, and engage in regular discussion and experience-sharing as they, and their pupils, progress through the programme.

Education consultant and former secondary school head of maths Jane Miller questioned whether it was good use of money.

She agreed “abacuses are a really good tool” but warned they are not easy to use or teach with.

“People associate abacuses with little children but it’s a much more complex concept. An abacus is not a toy,” said Jane, who is director of education consultancy Impact School Improvement.

“If you are putting them in schools then teachers need to be trained to use them or they will just sit on shelves gathering dust.”

She warned now might not be the time to add another new tool to maths teaching and learning.

Schools need to ensure children have the basic foundations of maths above all else.

“Teachers will need to have professional learning to underpin how to use abacuses in schools for the best.

“It’s no use putting them in schools if no one knows how to use them properly.

“People traditionally think of abacuses for addition but they can also be used for other things and complex calculations.”

An abacus can help with counting and basic mental calculations
(Image: acilo)

Jane, who has a maths degree and is a former secondary school department head of maths, said she was never taught to use an abacus for teaching or learning, and suspects that’s the case for most teachers.

She said she was “wary” of the plan without a longer-term view of how and why they will be used.

Raymond Douse, Director of Whizz Education, provider of the leading virtual tutor Maths-Whizz. added: “”We all want to see children being given as much support as possible to catch up on lost learning.

“However, we would rather see the Government leaving the decision to schools as to how taxpayers’ money is being spent.

“For very young children, and especially blind children, the abacus has a role to play.

“For the broad majority of school children, however, we believe personalised virtual maths tutoring would be a much more sensible way to spend this money. Let schools and their parents decide.”

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