Maths Challenge

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Maths Challenge
BBC Schools Radio
First run:
12th January

23rd March

Repeated until
22nd March

(15 school years)
Episodes:55 episodes
Duration:15 minutes, 20 minutes
Subject:Mathematics: Mathematics
Audience:Age 9-11
Language:In English
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3 images from this programme


A mental maths radio quiz for 9-11 year olds, with the questions set by a talking computer called Matrix, which interacts with the programme presenter. The radio programmes are designed to stimulate pupils ('to massage their maths muscle and turn them into mental maths masterminds') with a mix of quick-fire questions, engaging puzzles, music and sound effects. There was also a separate Maths Challenge TV series.

There have been two types of radio programmes. The Mental Maths programmes are wide-ranging quizzes with three rounds. The first round is always "beat the clock", quick-fire maths questions for general practice. In the first few Mental Maths units these questions cover a wide range of topics such as fractions and decimals, money and measurements as well as calculations, but in the 2007 unit they are specifically on the topic of each episode.

Round two involves more elaborate scenarios such as shopping, a visit to the fair, or an athletics competition, leading to multi-stage problem solving - which get longer and more involved towards the end of each term's worth of programmes. And round three is normally "juggling numbers", in which pupils are given several numbers and have to use different mathematical operations to reach a target number.

Early programmes also included a teaching section after the end of the quiz, in which the presenter gives advice on the topic of the episode.

The other type of Maths Challenge programmes are called Mental Booster. These again have a quiz with three rounds, but the questions are all set to provide extra practice on one particular topic.

All of the programmes were designed to encourage mental calculation. Pupils are allowed to write down the numbers that they hear in rounds 2 and 3, but the maths has to be done in their heads and only the final answer written down. The quick-fire questions in the first round only allow 2 seconds of thinking time so that mental calculation is essential.

The programmes were designed to be tape recorded and played back with the teacher in control. There are points in each episode where the programme should be paused, for example to add up the score at the end of a round, and teachers could also pause the recording to give their pupils more time to complete each question if necessary.

Maths Challenge TV Workout Year 5 title.jpg
Maths Challenge was the first in a range of mental maths programmes introduced on BBC school radio in the late 1990s and early 2000s, soon followed by Numbertime for 5-7 year-olds and Megamaths for 7-9 year-olds. A Maths Challenge TV series was also made, retaining the quiz format but following the adventures of secret agent Matt Mattics instead of Matrix and a presenter.

The BBC used the same names for both the TV and radio series for each age group, but while Numbertime and Megamaths began as TV series, Maths Challenge was first heard on the radio and only appeared on television three years later. This site has a separate page about Maths Challenge TV Workout.


The title of each episode is the mathematical topic that it covers. Inevitably some titles were used more than once during the series. In this list, titles which occur more than once have a suffix indicating which unit they belong to - so "Multiplication (MM1)" is the Multiplication episode from Mental Maths 1, and "Multiplication (MM4)" is the Multiplication episode from Mental Maths 4.

# Title Broadcast
Mental Maths 1
1. Multiplication (MM1) 12 Jan 1999
2. Division and Factors 19 Jan 1999
3. Addition and subtraction of the number 9 26 Jan 1999
4. Adding and subtracting two-digit numbers 2 Feb 1999
5. Complementary addition (MM1) 9 Feb 1999
6. Rounding numbers up & down 23 Feb 1999
7. Calculating with large numbers (MM1) 2 Mar 1999
8. Multiplying with zeros 9 Mar 1999
9. Dividing tenths and hundredths 16 Mar 1999
10. Equivalent fractions 23 Mar 1999
Mental Maths 2
1. Multiplication (MM2) 21 Sep 1999
2. Division (MM2) 28 Sep 1999
3. Addition and subtraction (MM2) 5 Oct 1999
4. Calculating with two-digit numbers 12 Oct 1999
5. Complementary addition (MM2) 19 Oct 1999
6. Rounding and approximation 2 Nov 1999
7. Calculating with large numbers (MM2) 9 Nov 1999
8. Calculating with zeros 16 Nov 1999
9. Tenths and Hunderdths 23 Nov 1999
10. Fractions 30 Nov 1999
Year 5 Mental Booster
1. Halving and doubling 27 Apr 2001
2. Multiples and Multiplying 4 May 2001
3. Tens and Hundreds 11 May 2001
4. Adding near multiples of 10 and 100 18 May 2001
5. Subtracting near multiples of 10 and 100 25 May 2001
Mental Maths 3
1. Multiplication and division bonds to 10 21 Sep 2001
2. Fractions and dividing 28 Sep 2001
3. Zeroing in - large numbers 5 Oct 2001
4. Decimals (MM3) 12 Oct 2001
5. Doubles and halves 19 Oct 2001
6. Complements 2 Nov 2001
7. Rounding up and down 9 Nov 2001
8. Percentages (MM3) 16 Nov 2001
9. Working with large numbers 23 Nov 2001
10. Ordering numbers and number patterns 30 Nov 2001
Year 6 Mental Booster
1. Number quickies 17 Jan 2003
2. Multiples and factors 24 Jan 2003
3. Special numbers 31 Jan 2003
4. Knowing fractions 7 Feb 2003
5. Divisions and fractions 14 Feb 2003
6. Percentages (Y6) 28 Feb 2003
7. Negative numbers 7 Mar 2003
8. Decimals (Y6) 14 Mar 2003
9. Equations 21 Mar 2003
10. Number knowledge 28 Mar 2003
Mental Maths 4
1. Addition and subtraction (MM4) 12 Jan 2007
2. Multiplication (MM4) 19 Jan 2007
3. Division (MM4) 26 Jan 2007
4. Fractions (MM4) 2 Feb 2007
5. Decimals (MM4) 9 Feb 2007
6. Percentages 23 Feb 2007
7. Rounding up and down (MM4) 2 Mar 2007
8. Big numbers 9 Mar 2007
9. Measurement 16 Mar 2007
10. All sorts of problems 23 Mar 2007


Presented by Ralph van Dijk

Sidney Sloane

Produced by Katriona MacEwan

Jeff Capel
John Tuckey

Mental Maths 1 written by Derek Farmer
questions set by Peter Patilla
special effects & music composed by Robin Lever
sound engineerined by Andy Hewitt
Mental Maths 4 editor Andrew Barnes

The voice of Matrix was provided by the presenter, with a computer-y filter to their voice.


The programmes were broadcast as part of BBC school radio's overnight transmissions on BBC Radio 3 FM and, later, BBC Radio 4 digital.

The first two series were broadcast on Tuesday mornings at 4:15am, but from autumn 2000 onwards the series has been scheduled on Friday mornings and all subsequent series have been broadcast at various times in the early hours of Fridays.

Since 2005 the programmes have also been available to stream online from the BBC School Radio website for 7 days following the transmission of each episode.

A Maths Challenge podcast was launched in January 2010, allowing each episode of the series to be downloaded as an MP3 file in the week after its broadcast.


Activity Packs

A range of activity packs have been published to accompany the series, containing activities targetting "the trickiest areas of the maths curriculum". The packs can be used with or without the radio programmes. There are two packs in each series, one for 9-10 year-olds and the other for 10-11 year-olds.

These initial packs contained a wire-bound activity book with photocopiable worksheets and an audio-cassette with ten 5-minute sections, complementing the teaching sections in the original radio series. The book and cassette were also sold separately.

Activity books with worksheets & teacher's activities were released in 2000. In 2001 these were collected into Activity Packs (with the same ISBN numbers) containing the books and a large poster to support "The Challenge Game". This game involves groups of children answering multiple-choice maths questions and trying to complete a line across the game board (the poster), which is like the board from the TV quiz show Blockbusters.

A set of activity books and teaching cards.

Activity books with photocopiable activity sheets and teacher's notes, supporting the topics covered by the Mental Booster radio programmes.

Separate activity books were published to accompany the Maths Challenge TV programmes.

Various activity pack and activity book covers

School Radio Tapes

School radio tape cover

From 1999 to 2005 each term's radio programmes were available to purchase on cassette.

These were later supplanted by CDs, and then MP3 CDs, as well as online distribution.

Sources & References

  • BBC Primary Catalogues and Primary Timetables, 1998-2006
  • BBC School Radio website
  • and recordings of Mental Maths 1, Mental Maths 4 and Year 5 Mental Booster programmes

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