The Big Question: Should skills tests for trainee teachers be scrapped?

Each week, we speak to the people who count, people like you, and post their opinions on the big issues in the education world.  Read it and comment to make it a lively and insightful debate.

This week’s question:  Should skills tests for trainee teachers be scrapped?

Trainee teachers are struggling to pass basic maths and literacy tests, according to a recent report. The compulsory skills tests, covering English, maths and ICT, are in addition to the requirement for all trainee teachers to have GCSE passes in English and maths. 

The numbers of teachers needing to re-sit maths skills tests has risen by one fifth; and literacy re-sits have increased by 16% since 2001 according to the report highlighted by the Liberal Democrats in Parliament this month.

The Government believes that the tests help to ensure that teachers meet their wider professional responsibilities and help to maintain standards. The tests can be retaken an unlimited number of times if trainees fail.

Others in the community question the relevancy of such tests, and whether, for instance, it is appropriate for a language or art teacher to sit a maths skills test. 

“Two years ago and third time lucky, I managed to finally pass the maths skills test, so at the time I would certainly have said yes, they should be scrapped.  Besides, I wondered why I would need this skill as my subject specialism was English.  Now, though, I can see that there is a need to be proficient in these core areas, though perhaps something radically different, and more professionally relevant than skills tests.

“Additionally, the timing of the tests is wrong and would be better if it was attached to the school-based NQT programme.  The content is wrong, and in fact, I’ve used very little of the skills in these tests in my real work as a teacher.  Has anyone ever heard of a ‘bar and whisker’?  I came across these terms for the first time in the maths skills test, but, strangely, not since.”

Tabetha King, secondary English teacher


“It does feel rather superfluous for would-be teachers of secondary level English, maths or ICT to have to take a basic skills test in their specialism subject. However, it may be administratively easier to make everyone take all the tests.

“Teachers need to have basic competence in English, maths and ICT, but I’m not sure the current format for the skills test is the best way to go about this.  The ICT test in particular, should be much more closely linked to the real programs that we use in schools every day, possibly more like the European Computer Driving Licence tests.

“It says something, although I’m not sure what, that so many people who have already passed a GCSE in English and maths are having such difficulty in passing the basic skills tests in those subjects.

“We expect our pupils to sit exams, so it’s good for us as teachers to be put under exam conditions to remind us of pupils’ experience, as often teachers’ last experience would probably be when they were students.

“Also, we use English, maths and ICT daily in our work, and I think the widely held attitude that it doesn’t matter if you cannot do maths is unacceptable as any teacher can be called upon to cover any subject in school. I believe teachers should be expected to express themselves (orally and in writing) using correct English - it gives a poor message to the community if we get our grammar and spellings wrong. Without basic ICT skills, my job would be impossible and I would be totally removed from the world of my students, for whom ICT is a major part of their lives. I think this would be a major disadvantage.”

Nicola Poole, secondary maths teacher

“The basic problem is that the teaching profession doesn’t always attract the brightest candidates.  Unlike medicine, there isn’t a requirement for graduates to have good degrees, and schemes such as Teach First, which attract the brightest and the best, should be expanded.  Then there would no need for basic skills tests.”

Tom Black, primary school teacher

Are these tests relevant? Share your views by posting below.