Schools will test for genetic "number
by Macer Hall
The Sunday Telegraph: 14th April, 2002.
Thousands of schoolchildren are to be tested for
dyscalculia, a "number blindness" condition which is
increasingly being cited as the reason many
youngsters are failing at maths.
Scientists believe that up to six per cent of the
population, the equivalent of nearly two children in
every classroom, suffers from the little-known genetic
disorder, which is related to dyslexia. Educationists
fear that dyscalculic children are falling behind in
mathematics because teachers are not aware that the
In an attempt to identify possible sufferers, the tests
are to be introduced in schools across the country in
September as part of research into dyscalculia backed
by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES).
The tests have been devised by Brian Butterworth, the
professor of cognitive neuropsychology at University
College London, with the British Dyslexia Association.
Dyscalculia sufferers are often unable to understand
mathematical concepts as simple as 2+2=4. It is
thought that they are born lacking the ability to
understand different numbers and the relationships
The condition is far less widely recognised than
dyslexia, Prof Butterworth said. Although many people
had both conditions, it was possible to have good
language and literacy skills but still be "number blind".
Dyscalculia was first discovered in 1919 by Salomon
Henschen, a Swedish neurologist. He found that it was
possible for a person to have impaired mathematical
abilities that did not affect intelligence in general. The
DfES tests involve a series of simple maths questions,
including counting dots on a computer screen, or
comparing two sets of images and indicating which is
Children will be graded according to the time they take
to answer the questions, with different response times
expected for various groups. The tests this year, which
will involve children at all school ages, are being seen
"Dyscalculia is a big problem that is only just being
recognised," said Prof Butterworth. "My own guess is
that it is rather like colourblindness; there will be ways
of working round it, but there won't be a cure as such.
"We found that some children with very severe
dyscalculia can still achieve A-level mathematics. They
can understand abstract mathematics but struggle
with the simpler number stuff."
He added that the Government's national numeracy
strategy had been bad for dyscalculic children. "It
requires them to participate in whole-class teaching
when they can never answer the question."
The tests will be available to local education
authorities (LEAs) this September from nferNelson,
which supplies a range of educational assessments to
schools throughout Britain. Although the decision on
testing will be left to LEAs, the DfES is monitoring the
A DfES spokesman said: "We provide special
educational-needs training for our teachers, and that
includes guidelines on dyscalculia. The national
numeracy strategy is designed to raise standards in
maths for all children and, since September last year,
we have been sending out specific information on
Pauline Clayton, the principal tutor in maths at the
Dyslexia Institute, feared however that the tests would
simply add to the burden of assessment on
schoolchildren. "Good teachers get a gut feeling about
their children, they know those who are
underachieving," she said. "Greater awareness of
dyscalculia is needed but I don't think we should go
down the route of testing."
A child for whom the clock is a
by Macer Hall
The Sunday Telegraph: 14th April, 2002.
Sharon Barnard became convinced that her nineyear-
old son Joseph was dyscalculic after years of
watching him struggle with his maths homework.
Describing his problems, she said that he had difficulty
remembering the answers to simple addition problems
involving single-digit numbers. Mrs Barnard, of
Worthing, West Sussex, said: "He still hasn't grasped
adding on. He cannot subtract in his head.
"Joseph may grasp a concept one day, but then he
fails to understand it when he comes across it again
later. Maths has its own language which is sometimes
difficult for him to understand. He sometimes confuses
'take away' with 'multiply'."
Mrs Barnard said that Joseph's maths problems also
brought confusion when attempting to tell the time.
She said: "Joseph can work out the hour from a clock
face but has difficulty with minutes and assessing
whether those minutes are past or to the hour. He has
difficulty judging spans of time. For example, if he is
told at 10am that an event will start at 3pm, he has no
idea how long he will have to wait.
"We have to break it down into mental pictures, for
example saying: "It will happen after lunch and after
you have played for a bit".
Joseph, who attends Broadwater Church of England
School in Worthing, became increasingly frustrated
when doing homework and worried about school. Mrs
Barnard said: "Just recently he told me that he spent
most of a numeracy session with 'my head on the
desk' because 'I couldn't understand my maths'."
Despite his problems, Mrs Barnard has been unable to
convince the education authorities that Joseph needed
special teaching. "We noticed early on in his education
that while he learnt to read very quickly, maths didn't
come quite so easily. But, at that stage, we were not
unduly worried," she said.
She became worried when Joseph began attending
middle school yet still struggled with simple sums.
Last year, the school applied for special-needs funding
for Joseph but the request was turned down by West
Sussex Education Authority on the grounds that his
difficulties were "not severe". Joseph recently took
Prof Butterworth's test in London and his parents are
awaiting the results.
Mrs Barnard said: "His school appears to be doing all it
can but we believe Joseph's needs are severe enough
to warrant specialist help, ideally away from the
Numeracy Hour, with its emphasis on whole-class
"The education authority believes that the school can
meet Joseph's needs, but we do not think that the
school's resources can meet them."