A daily dose of mental arithmetic has been placed on the curriculum for primary and even nursery schools in France, under a government scheme to sharpen young minds dulled by television.

Gilles de Robien, the Education Minister, has ordered children to carry out between 15 and 20 minutes of calcul mental every day from the age of 5, when they are in the final year of nursery school, as part of a back-to-basics programme.

He also wants five-year-olds to resume the study of multiplication and division, as well as addition and subtraction, for the first time since the 1970s.

Mr de Robien moved after a report from the French Science Academy said that children who practised sums in their heads had better memories and quicker brains. "This subject has been neglected in primary schools much too much," he said. "It's time to bring it back."

The minister said that the discipline would develop pupils' intellect and serve them in adult life. "It's important not to forget to link exercises to daily life. How do you calculate a reduction during the sales, for example?" Mr de Robien's initiative followed claims that mental arithmetic had been on the wane since the 1960s because of modern methods - a claim denied by teaching unions.

Pierre Léna, education delegate at the academy, pinned responsibility for the decline on pupils rather than teachers. "With children watching more than three hours of television a day there is a real problem of attention span and the mobilisation of memories," he said. "Their memories are more cluttered up than they were 50 years ago."

He said that mental arithmetic necessitated a return to learning by rote - including, for instance, of multiplication tables. This liberated brain space for other subjects. "If a child takes two seconds to tell you that 7 x 8 is 56, it's obvious that the effort is less than if it takes two minutes of reflection."

The report went on to recommend the reintroduction of multiplication and division from the age of 5. Under the present curriculum five-year-olds are taught only to add and subtract. Unions say that mental arithmetic has never been neglected by teachers, and accuse Mr de Robien of trying to dictate a minute-by-minute timetable in schools.

His back-to-basics includes three hours of grammar in primary schools every week and a return to the "syllabic" method for teaching pupils how to read, rather than the more modern "global method".

Take the test

Questions for the final year of French primary school

Calculate in your head
1 Half of 48, 72, 414, 826 and 1,040
2 Three times 41, 52, 109, 212 and 503
3 A third of 12, 66, 93, 309, 636 and 3,024
4 76-9, 987-9, 456-19, 497-19 and 564-29
5 15x4, 25x4, 30x4, 35x4, 40x4 and 45x4