The Department for Education is considering buying up to 360,000 abacuses for use in up to 6,000 schools across England to aid catch-up efforts in the wake of the pandemic.

In an early engagement notice, published on Monday, the DfE said it was exploring the “potential” use of a specific type of abacus as part of its efforts to support numeracy in schools.

The department said it wanted to hear from organisations that could “manufacture, supply and/or distribute ‘rekenrek’ style abacuses” from the start of the next school year.

They will be used in a new maths catch-up programme for primary pupils.  Launching in September, the year-long “mastering number” programme, run by a DfE-funded maths network, will offer places for
reception, year 1 and 2 teachers in up to 6,000 schools.

Suppliers are being asked to say if they can “commit to and have the capacity to deliver up to 360,000 abacuses to up to 6,000 schools in England from September 2021”. The DfE has set out detailed specifications for how they should be made.

They must have two rows, each consisting of five red and five white beads, and it is “important that red beads come before white beads”.

The beads must be 0.8 to 1.5 centimetres wide, and ideally of “the flat type” rather than fully round, “as young children find these easier to move”.

The frame must be made of wood or “robust” plastic, with a metal rod for the beads. The frame would also need to be 25 to 30 centimetres wide, but the frame colour is “unimportant”.

Another specific requirement is that it should be “easy to tip back and forth so that beads easily slide across when tipped”.

They must also be suitable for children as young as four, and be “accredited with the EU safety standard CE and the BSI Kite Mark”.

The DfE has also said it wants to make sure the company supplying the equipment can demonstrate a “low carbon footprint, ethical resourcing and value for money”.

DfE looks to support maths catch-up

The department said the tender was part of efforts to explore ways to support maths catch-up at primary level.

If the total of 360,000 abacuses was supplied, and each primary school received the same number, it would work out at 60 per setting.

The government has not said how much it plans to spend on the equipment. Schools Week found various examples for sale online for between £4 and £7 each. Even at the low end of that scale, 360,000 units would cost over £1.4 million.

The tender is only in the early market engagement phase, meaning a formal procurement process has not begun.

Manufacturers only have until Friday to express an interest and confirm they have capacity to deliver the equipment, because of the “limited delivery timeframe”, the DfE said.

It is not the first time the government has sought to supply the same resource to large numbers of schools.

In 2011, Michael Gove announced every state school in England would receive a new copy of the King James Bible from government to mark its 400th anniversary. The £370,000 project was funded by charities and philanthropists.

Picture credit: Adil Jaffer, Amsterdam International Community School, @adil_3

Updated on May 25 to include details of the mastering number programme, which was announced after this story was originally published