20 May 2017

Calculators for the New A Level

In September over 100 students at my school will be starting the new A level course. I've been trying to find out exactly what calculator they will need and how they can get the best deal.

I'll say upfront that I am most definitely not a calculator person. Some maths teachers get really excited about calculators. I don't. I lost my lovely 20-year-old calculator last year so bought the Casio 991EX ClassWiz at #mathsconf8 in October. I've only used it for standard calculations so far, and my main thoughts are: (a) the font is weird (b) the menus are quite user-friendly and (c) the white case gets dirty quickly. That's about it. People who love calculators seem to really love the ClassWiz. It has some neat features - if you're interested, this review on Amazon gives some insight into the functionality that people are getting excited about.

The ClassWiz is not the only calculator that's suitable for the new A level (do check out the TI-30X Pro too). But I have a feeling that the ClassWiz will be the one that most new A level students are told buy in September, which is why I'm focusing on the ClassWiz in this post.

Around 100,000 students will each spend over £20 on a new calculator this September. £2,000,000 spent on calculators is a really big deal. So before our students collectively give Casio this vast amount of money, I need to be sure that it's absolutely necessary.

This extract is from MEI's website:
"Ofqual's subject-level conditions and requirements for Mathematics and Further Mathematics state that calculators used must include the following features:
  • an iterative function
  • the ability to compute summary statistics and access probabilities from standard statistical distributions
  • the ability to perform calculations with matrices up to at least order 3 x 3 (FM only)
For the 2017 A levels students will require a calculator that can calculate Binomial and Normal probabilities directly from values. The minimum standard for this is an advanced scientific calculator, such as the Casio 991EX ClassWiz or the TI-30X Pro..."

Just to clarify - A level maths students will probably already have a calculator from GCSE that does everything they need - except binomial probabilities. This is the one thing that they will need to buy a new calculator for.

Everything else that the ClassWiz does that current calculators don't do is a 'nice to have' for the new A level but not essential. It does do some cool stuff, but bear in mind that the extent to which 'nice to have' functionality is used depends heavily on whether teachers know how to use the functionality themselves and have enough time to teach it to their students. My understanding is that timing for the new A level is going to be really tight as it is (my school has nine hours a fortnight at A level and I'm told that it probably won't be enough time to get through the content). Given time constraints and huge class sizes, I can't see that I'll be spending much (if any) time on any non-essential calculator skills.

We're told that there is now a 'requirement for the use of technology to permeate teaching and learning' at A level. I'm a big fan of using Desmos in lessons - most A level maths teachers have been doing this for years anyway. Desmos is free, easy to use and works well on students' phones. The large data set work will probably be done in Excel or Geogebra so I guess I'll be booking IT rooms for that when the time comes (which is easier said than done!).

People who are looking to make money from calculator sales might try to convince teachers that graphical calculators are a requirement for the new A level. This is misleading. I'll stick with Desmos. Graphical calculators do offer some benefits to students but even the newest models are dated and unintuitive. The article "Pricey Graphing Calculators Could Be Headed for Extinction" is worth a read. In many schools this expensive equipment ends up sitting unused in a cupboard after a year or two. However, if you're skilled at using graphical calculators and you have the time to teach your students how to use them properly, then that's great - by all means buy them for your students (they're expensive so this unlikely to be an option in large schools) or ask students to buy one themselves (probably only an option in private schools).

So, in summary, for A level maths it is essential that students buy a new calculator, purely for binomial probabilities, and the ClassWiz is a sensible choice for most students.

Where to buy
On A level induction day next month, I'll tell my students that they will have to buy a new calculator in September (once they've confirmed they are definitely taking maths). I would like them to buy their calculators through high street retailers.

Presumably the first month or so of maths A level will focus on non-calculator topics that were previously in C1, so October half-term might be a reasonable deadline for students to buy their new calculator.

Casio tells me that the ClassWiz will hit retailers in 'maybe September', but probably at a higher price than they are currently on sale for. A bit more certainty on dates would be helpful - this is all a bit too last minute for me. I'm frustrated by Casio's approach here. I very much hope that Casio has enough stock to cater for huge levels of demand in September.

Casio warns to avoid buying the ClassWiz from Amazon at the moment because 'they sell non UK imports'. The ClassWiz currently being sold on Amazon for £32.50 comes with foreign language instruction manuals.

Many schools are buying calculators in bulk for their teachers to use, or to sell to their students. Sources of calculators include:

There may be discounts for bulk orders. VAT can be reclaimed if the calculators are for school use, but not if sold to students.

I'm reluctant to buy in bulk and sell to students because we've had nightmares with this in the past (does anyone want to buy three unopened boxes of brand new C2 textbooks from us? Didn't think so). I'd rather students took responsibility for their own calculator purchase.

Dr Frost is an absolute superstar and has created a brilliant free tool for training staff and students in how to use the ClassWiz. It's a PowerPoint guide explaining every key and mode.
Casio offers an emulator, but the licence is £9.95 + VAT per year per computer.

If you want your team to be trained on how to use all the functionality on the ClassWiz, perhaps speak to your local Maths Hub. This certainly seems like something the Maths Hubs could usefully offer in July and September if they have the expertise. The FMSP is offering numerous free calculator events but these sessions focus on graphical calculators, not the ClassWiz.

Calculator suppliers are not the only companies cashing in on the change to A levels and GCSEs. Textbook publishers are benefiting too. With such limited funds in education - redundancies, growing class sizes and leaking roofs - this is a frustrating use of public money. Curriculum change is an expensive business.

People have said to me that 'kids these days' don't think twice about buying the latest iPhone so £30 for a calculator isn't a big deal. Perhaps it's not a big deal on an individual basis, but I'm looking at the bigger picture - over £2 million. That's a big deal.


  1. I agree with you on many points. I don't use calculators often. Mathematics is great because you only need paper and pen. When I have to do serious calculations or make graphs, I'll use a computer and dedicated software, such as desmos, matlab, R, mathematica, ... So, I don't understand this new requirement.
    I checked the price of the TI-30X-Pro and it seems much cheaper than the Casio (£16.45 on amazon). Why would you choose the Casio then?

    1. Good question! The people I know who love calculators talk a lot about the ClassWiz, but I don't know if they've done a comparison. It would be interesting to find out why it's considered the better option. Perhaps it's just because in the UK Casio massively dominates the market - most GCSE students currently own a Casio.

  2. Some calculator companies offer a sale or return option so you can buy the calculators with a bulk discount, sell to students and then return the rest. At least this will mean you don't end up with loads left over

    1. That's very helpful, thank you! I didn't know that.

      One of the tricky things about this is ensuring that every single student does buy one and does bring it to lessons, because teaching calculator skills is hard if anyone in the room doesn't have one!

  3. Henrietta Ball22 May 2017 at 18:48

    We currently get them to buy a graphical calculator. We get them to order through us making sure we get the money first then do a massive order. Have always managed to get the cheaper rate that way and we are never out of pocket.

    1. Sensible approach to ordering, thank you.

      Having tutored a private school student who was great at using a graphical calculator but had no understanding of the underlying maths, I'm still not convinced about them. I know that they work well for some teachers in some schools, but they definitely don't suit everyone.

      I recently attended an event where I got to play with the latest graphical calculator and I thought it was awful!

  4. I taught IB for five years and Graphical Display Calculators were compulsory and necessary. Therefore, much more time could be spent on choosing the correct procedure and interpreting the result. Loved them and embedded them in all lessons. The materials from IB are out there and easy to use. I think they are well worth a look.

    1. Hi. Was this at a private school? Graphical calculators are very expensive.

    2. We applied for funding and had a class set which was used from Year 8. Nearly all sixth form maths students then chose to buy their own as they realised how useful they are. £80 is pricey, but was often an Xmas present from grandparents!

  5. Hi, Oxford Educational Supplies seem cheapest and they do sale or return. I'm going to organise this for September, where we take orders from students and do a bulk order to OES.

  6. thanks for sharing.for more information : see more

  7. From a calculator enthusiast, https://passion4maths.com/2017/08/21/comparing-calculators-fx-991-es-v-ex/ ,a comparison of the fx-991 ES v EX . Thank you again for the information.

  8. This is really nice post. This post has really impress me through its quality writing. In this article i watch some new writing style which is really nice. So thanks for sharing such a awesome post.