Testing Times

Here’s where I start.

All other things being equal (which they obviously aren’t) there is no detriment to learning times tables. How ever you learn them. By continuous practice, by chanting, by using an app. It’s all good. I know mine and I’m glad I do. The more that children know them the better off they’ll be.

I’d also like to say at this point that every teacher teaching young children agrees with that. I’d like to, but in all honesty I’m not sure they all do. I’m not talking great numbers but you definitely couldn’t say it was true for 100%.

I think the number that’s closer to 100% is headteachers in primary schools who agrees with the value of times tables.

But even in those classes where the teachers views aren’t entirely aligned with mine, times tables teaching occurs. And theres no doubt that some of it could be more efficient and effective than it currently is.

So we have at the moment exactly what you might expect. There are schools teaching times tables too much, there are schools teaching them just the right amount and there are a few schools not teaching them quite enough. My sense of things is that the “too much” tail is at least as big as the “too little tail”.

I do not start from a position where I believe everything is rosy in the garden.

But we do have to ask the question “what is the test going to achieve”?

It’s a national test whose results will not, if we are to take the DfE at their word, be published at school level. I’m guessing that this means they will certainly be published at national level and probably at some regional or LA level. We are also told that the tests “will not be used by Ofsted and others to force changes in schools”. To be honest I have my doubts about this last bit given the focus Ofsted already places on times tables in its primary reports.

As it stands I can see two purposes to the test, one educational and one political.

The educational one is to ensure that sufficient time is devoted to times table teaching. This is a honourable aim. One that I’m not sure the test will achieve. This is because it is a very blunt instrument. It is very unlikely that the test will ensure that those in the too little tail will increase their teaching, those in the too much tail will reduce their teaching and those in the middle will stay the same. The likelihood is that the majority of schools will increase their times table teaching (it’s also the case that today is a good day to buy shares in times table app companies, but that’s a different issue). So if the aim is sufficient time then this will be met only at the expense of many students spending too much time.

Now the response whenever anyone suggests that schools do something, teach more PHSE, teach first aid and so on is “what should they stop teaching to make way for this”. So its legitimate to ask the question with respect to times tables. If this test is going to lead to an increase in times table teaching, then what will that be at the expense of. Are Ofsted also going to hold off from criticising schools for narrowing the curriculum in order to increase times table work?

The political one is much more problematic. This is a signal. A signal that something is being done. The government wants to show it is doing something to raise standards. And when the test scores rise over the years (as they inevitable will) they won’t be crying out “Look at the grade inflation!” No, the cry will be “Look at how well our policy is working. We’re improving the mathematical outcomes of our children.”

Times tables are used as the signal because everyone can relate to them. They either know them themselves or they don’t, but they know what they are and can be easily convinced they are the most important prerequisite to proficiency in mathematics. They aren’t. They aren’t even a good proxy for the mathematics that are. At that age the concepts of number and place value, along with the nascent understanding of fractions is far more important. Knowing your times tables might enable you to calculate a solution but the conceptual understanding of number is more likely to enable you to frame the final calculation that is required in order to get to the solution. This is much harder to assess in a 10 minute test. And it’s much harder to sell as a political slogan.

Inevitably there will be negative effects from the introduction of this test. Undoubtedly there will be positives too. Will children be able to multiply more quickly as a result of the tests? Indirectly, probably. Will it make them better mathematicians? I doubt it. Will it reduce opportunities for learning in other areas? I’d say this is inevitable.

So I don’t think times table are a good proxy for learning maths and as such I’m unconvinced that the tests will improve mathematical outcomes, but I do think they are a symptom that we shouldn’t ignore.

However, I think we should look to a different test to see where the real problem is.

This week the DfE announced (quietly of course) that the 9,000 teachers (many of whom will be primary) who have been shut out of the numeracy and literacy skills tests will now be allowed as many retakes as they like. This is 9,000 teachers who have failed these tests 3 times. This is problematic. I’m not sure that a teacher who cannot pass the numeracy test is fully capable of teaching the maths required, even at primary level. Sure, they can teach it mechanistically, but at the conceptual level? I don’t think so. The real problem with maths in this country is that we have too many teachers who have barely been able to scrape a grade C at GCSE teaching it. This is not good enough.

So if the DfE really wants to improve the mathematical outcome of children its focus would be on improving the mathematical capability of the teachers teaching them. They don’t do this for two reasons. Firstly because of the costs involved. But secondly because this will not give a clear cut political message to put out. There is no quick win here, so the preferred policy takes a back seat. This is detrimental to both our children and our nation.

And, having offended probably nearly everyone, I’ll leave it there. Except to say, they’re going to be doing the test on iPads. I’m almost wetting myself at the irony.

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