Education Minister to launch report criticising primary teachers for letting children down.

A report to be launched by the Minister of Education today criticises the way pupils are taught maths and calls on parents to demand a return to basics.

The paper, written by a researcher for the New Zealand Initiative (NZI) business group, criticises a $70 million Government maths project for failing to improve results and says teachers' maths abilities are letting children down.

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"Too many children are not learning the basics off by heart at school. And, paradoxically, this is what is holding them back from developing a more complex understanding of maths," the report said.

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Its release follows several recent local and international studies, including a Herald investigation from 2013, that found New Zealand children's maths abilities are on a downward slide. The latest, released by the Ministry of Education on Friday, said scores drop dramatically between ages 8 to 12, with too many of the older children failing to grasp fundamentals such as fractions and decimals.

The report criticised the introduction of changes to maths teaching with the Numeracy Project, introduced in 2000.

It said the project was aimed at moving away from Victorian-era rote learning. But the NZI report says the pendulum has now "swung too far" in the other direction, and results had not improved.

The project over-complicated teaching, it said, asking children to learn multiple methods for solving maths problems before learning basic facts, such as times tables, or written methods such as column addition.

"Relational learning is important, but so is gaining fluency in the basics and written methods, which frees up children's working memory to develop the deeper conceptual mathematical understanding the Numeracy Project intended," it said.

The report cited teachers with poor maths skills as a related issue, and wanted to introduce a voluntary certificate of competency.

It quoted a 2010 study that found a third of new primary teachers could not add two fractions (7/18 + 1/9).

"When teachers can't do simple fractions, that's shocking," said NZI executive director Oliver Hartwich. "Teachers have to take some of the responsibility."

Dr Hartwich said the think-tank was not calling for a return to the old days, but for a move away from what an "experimental approach".

"We think the Numeracy Project should be heavily modified, if not abolished altogether," he said.

Education Minister Hekia Parata says maths has been a challenge for "generations".

She told TV3's Paul Henry programme this morning the latest report was only a "fresh perspective" to several reports available.

Ms Parata said it was important to make sure children were learning basic facts quickly but had multiple learning options available for other maths.

"We do have a challenge in maths, as we do in reading and writing.

"This is about how we can do better, we have not sunk to some kind of zero...We've got plans in place."

Christchurch maths tutor Audrey Tan, who is campaigning to bring back column addition, agreed with the report. "If you talk to any secondary teacher they will tell you not knowing basics is getting in the way of students moving forward with maths."

Auckland-based tutor Margi Leech said the Numeracy Project had been fantastic for some children, although she acknowledged it wasn't so good for those who were struggling.

"But if we go back to traditional maths, that's just training kids to be accountants," she said.

President of the Auckland Principals Association (APPA), Frances Nelson, said teachers wanted to know what was going on after Year 4, when student achievement was dropping off.

"Primary-school teachers are generalists. Maths is becoming more and more complex, and if it's more complex, we should be considering what to do, instead of blaming teachers," Mrs Nelson said.

She suggested that perhaps specialist maths teachers were needed at Year 5, as in countries such as Korea, Singapore and China.

However, she rejected the idea schools weren't teaching the basics. "The focus is on understanding what it means, but then rote learning."

Education Minister Hekia Parata, who will launch the report today, said it provided a "fresh perspective" on issues schools were grappling with. She would not go as far as to say she supported its findings.

"I want to see maths teaching that is based on evidence of what works and that meets the need of the individual child. Clearly we could do better. That is why the Government is investing in successful maths programmes, investing in professional development, gathering evidence about what works and what doesn't."

Read the report:

Sums lover like Moth to a flame

Indy Moth, 9, from Matipo School on Te Atatu Peninsula, says maths is fun now she knows the basics. Photo / Supplied
Indy Moth, 9, from Matipo School on Te Atatu Peninsula, says maths is fun now she knows the basics. Photo / Supplied

Indy Moth, 9, loves maths. And she's good at it.

Indy, who attends Matipo Primary on Te Atatu Peninsula, says her school uses both new and old methods to teach maths over about an hour each day.

When the Herald asked Indy about maths at school she came straight out with the different ways she was taught - no prompting.

"First we had the different strategies, and then we were allowed to learn old-school maths, like my mum and you used to do - writing numbers in rows and things like that."

Indy thinks part of the reason she is in the top maths class is that her mother always "harasses" her at home.

"She always says, 'Do your times tables', and that makes me learn them," she says. "And we start each day in class with warm-ups - the times tables all mixed up."

Indy says maths is more fun now that she knows her basics, because it is easier.