**Teaching children maths by making them learn times tables by rote could worsen exam results because they risk failing to properly understand the subject, according to an Oxford University study.**

Professor Peter Bryant, of the university’s education department, said it showed that teaching mathematical reasoning should not be ignored.

Earlier this month Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said primary school children should learn times tables by “rote” to develop “fluency” in maths. Only by doing that would they be comfortable with long division and understand more difficult topics like algebra.

He said the lack of confidence with numbers that many people felt was “having a profound impact on our society and economy”.

A draft maths curriculum, the final version of which is due to be unveiled soon, suggests that nine year-olds should know their times tables up to 12x12 and that pupils should be able to work with numbers up to 10 million by the end of primary school.

Currently, children need to know up to 10x10 and be familiar with numbers below 1,000 by the age of 11.

Speaking to the Times Educational Supplement, Prof Bryant said: “Both arithmetic and maths reasoning are important and necessary, but we think there is a danger of maths reasoning moving out.”

His study showed that strong maths reasoning aged eight was a better predictor of being good at the subject aged 11 and 14 than strong arithmetic skills.

He conceded that “you can’t teach reasoning without children being able to calculate”.

The National Union of Teachers says the emphasis on rote learning will “stultify the learning process”.

Mike Ellicock, chief executive of the campaign group National Numeracy, said he had no objection to an emphasis on times tables, because they were very useful in real life.

But he warned: “Far too many children are going to feel maths is a subject they 'can’t do’ if we over-emphasise the procedural tools like times tables, rather than what we need the tools for; to solve problems.”

He said there was a good chance children would be interested in maths if teachers focused on mathematical reasoning and that the “pinnacle of primary maths should be confidence and competence in thinking mathematically”.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said the emphasis on arithmetic would not come at the expense of mathematical reasoning but would enhance it. “In emphasising fluency, the expectation is that pupils develop methods that are underpinned by mathematical concepts,” she said.

A fifth of pupils leave primary school without reaching the expected level in maths. The new National Curriculum for England will raise the requirement of what children are expected to know at each age, which could lead to that proportion rising, at least in the short term.

Five and six year-olds will be expected to count to 100, recognise basic fractions and memorise simple sums. In Year Two they will be expected to know their two, five and 10 times tables, add and subtract two-digit numbers in their heads and begin to use graphs.

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