The “times-tables to be tested” announcement is not exactly new. It was one of the elements contained in the (over) detailed Conservative Party Manifesto for the last election. Indeed, it is step number one. Also this is the announcement of the pilot, so there are plenty more opportunities for re-announcement. Expect that to happen.
And there are number of other things that will happen that are quite easily foreseeable.
These tests are going to be computer-based. So this will require all primary schools to have the technology available to run the tests. Governments have form in messing up online testing so I do not expect things to progress smoothly.
Now, my understanding is that if the DfE is going to mandate a test taking place then they need also to mandate the funding to ensure that it happens. This will mean ensuring that all schools have the computers on which to take the tests, the reliable connectivity to ensure the system can be used and that students can securely log on to the systems. It also assumes that there are sufficient numbers of appropriately trained staff to administer the tests with technical support available.
Whilst it would be really nice to assume that after all the expenditure on IT over the years that this was the case (an assumption that I assume the DfE have made) I have my doubts, and in any case it will be incumbent upon the DfE to ensure that this is the case. Their argument will of course be that this is the purpose of the pilot. However, as the pilot schools will not be randomly chosen this does not cover the issue adequately.
Another connected issue is that the DfE has changed the National Curriculum to refocus on computer science, specifically programming, rather than generic digital skills. School expenditure on IT equipment necessarily follows this. Setting up your school IT systems for online testing is not necessarily the same as setting them up for learning how to code. Understanding this would require joined up thinking of the kind that no longer seems to happen at the DfE.
Bear in mind that it is necessary not just to have all this available for the short time it may take for the Year 6 students to take the tests. The students will have to have been used to using the systems. So the availability of the school IT capacity will be reduced for other students (or will have to be increased to compensate) with a consequent impact on the delivery of the rest of the National Curriculum, including the ever so (allegedly) important need for everyone to be able to code. The incoherence in this approach is quite staggering. But not entirely unexpected.
I’m not saying that testing students knowledge of their times-tables is a bad idea. Of course it isn’t. Because every primary school does it all the time. Because they know it helps the students learn. Unfortunately this initiative isn’t about helping students to learn. It is there to help chastise schools and teachers. It is being used because it’s a simplistic dog-whistle proxy for mathematical capability. National tests for times-table capability will not improve that. I would suggest that once all the additional time this test forces students and teachers to spend on tables is taken into account, time that has to be taken from other activities, the only likely impact on maths capability, or whichever curriculum area is hit, will be a negative one. This, too, is foreseeable.
At the end of the day this is an issue of trust. By their actions the DfE are stating quite clearly that they do not trust schools to teach and test times-table capability. So they will use the macho bludgeon of national testing to enforce their will, both in terms of what is taught and how it is taught.
Our schools deserve better than to be treated this way.