Is the basic skills bar too low for teachers?

Politicians have said tests for trainees are not hard enough, but as Michael Shaw discovered, it's not quite that simple
14th November 2008, 12:00am
Michael Shaw


Is the basic skills bar too low for teachers?

Anyone who fails one of the basic skills tests for teachers must be a moron who should not be allowed near children.

This is the impression many parents may have after politicians recently criticised the number of trainees retaking the literacy, numeracy and ICT tests.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, obtained figures last month indicating that the number of resits had increased significantly since the introduction of the tests in 2000.

Although all trainee teachers need to have GCSEs in maths and English - and the skills tests are supposed to be slightly easier than both exams - the average number of attempts it took a teacher to pass the numeracy test had risen from 1.28 to 1.56, while the numbers for literacy had risen from 1.14 to 1.32.

Mr Laws said this was "a startling revelation" and that the minimum qualifications are too low.

"Many will be surprised that people without a good grasp of the 3Rs are being accepted on to teacher training courses in the first place," he said. "But more shocking is that unlike their pupils, trainees can keep taking the test until they pass."

Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative MP and former minister, was even more scathing, describing the resits as "perhaps the most telling comment on education today".

"Many children are being palmed off with those who cannot themselves understand the elementary requirements of literacy and numeracy, which it will become their job to impart to others," she said.

The decision by some newspapers to print a few of the simpler multiple choice questions only fanned the anger of some readers.

But some claims made about the tests are misleading and suggest the critics could do with some maths and literacy revision themselves.

The first misconception is that trainees who have failed the test can qualify and - as the Daily Express puts it - "will soon be teaching your children or grandchildren".

As anyone who has trained in the past eight years knows, the Training and Development Agency for Schools will not let teachers qualify and register with the General Teaching Council for England until they have passed all three tests.

Peter Eaton, a spokesman for the agency, said: "The skills tests are like driving tests. The few who don't pass first time improve and then pass. It doesn't mean that they will be bad teachers."

Another misconception is that teachers who fail the tests end up teaching the subject they struggled with. But even if you are a 50-year-old artist who wants to teach pottery, you will still have to pass the ICT exam. And, given the significance of computers in schools, many would say this is right.

"The tests cover the core skills in numeracy, literacy and ICT that teachers need to fulfil their wider professional role in schools, rather than the subject knowledge required for teaching," Mr Eaton said.

Those keen to criticise teachers' numeracy skills also seem on shaky ground when doing maths themselves. The Daily Telegraph reported that "half of all trainee teachers are failing basic numeracy test", while Ann Widdecombe wrote that "the number of trainee teachers repeatedly failing their compulsory maths test has trebled in six years".

But the figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats do not allow anyone to calculate the proportion of teachers who failed. They simply show how many times teachers who eventually passed took the tests.

The number of maths tests that teachers failed (before finally passing) has indeed tripled from 6,430 to 19,240. But the overall number taking the test has nearly doubled in the same period.

And it is unclear how many individual teachers re-sat the tests, as unlimited resits mean some could have done so several times. Mr Laws reported hearing of one case in which a teacher had attempted a test 28 times.

So why not ask the agency a more direct question: how many pass the tests first time?

Their answer is an average of 83 per cent. The graph to the left shows how the scores have varied over the past six years. The small decreases in literacy and numeracy pass rates are not anywhere as marked as the increases in retakes.

The agency is unsure why this has occurred, apart from the fact that teachers have been allowed unlimited resits since June 2001. The change was made less than a year after they were launched, after teacher unions and trainers said the "four strikes and you're out" rule put too much pressure on trainees.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers still believes the tests should be dropped.

Mary Bousted, ATL general secretary, said: "They are a complete waste of time when teachers have been trained to degree level. I know very good teachers who have had problems passing for one reason or another, sometimes because they have found the computerised format off-putting.

"Those teachers have been lost to the profession."

But Tabetha King, a secondary English teacher in Kent, has become more convinced of the tests' importance since qualifying two years ago.

"Third time lucky - I managed to pass the maths skills test, so at the time I would certainly have said they should be scrapped." she said.

"Now, though, I can see the need to be proficient in these core areas. It's the timing of the tests and their content that's wrong."


Trying the basic skills tests as a non-teacher is a bit like watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? It is easier to get the answers right when you are at home, under no pressure, and your future income doesn't depend on it.

But the experience of taking the tests can still be nerve-wracking - particularly for those unused to computerised tests and who have not recently faced a 15-second countdown to answer mental arithmetic questions.

To gauge how "elementary" the tests are, The TES asked a small panel of people in other professions - a politician, an accountant, a lawyer, a journalist and a doctor - to sit them.

Ann Widdecombe, who has called for a limit on resits, only had time to try some of the questions in the literacy and numeracy tests. But she remained convinced of their simplicity.

"The English one was a hoot - they misspelt 'dialogue' in the instructions," she said. "As for the maths, I asked the staff in my office what 630 divided by two divided by three was, and there were howls of derision. If that's what we're asking teachers to do, it's a joke."

The rest of the panel sat the full tests and passed all three. But they felt the tests were sufficiently challenging as a basic check, and that there was no need to make them any tougher.

The accountant, who got an A-grade at maths A-level, said he was flustered by the mental arithmetic section. "It's very time-pressured," he said. "The woman repeats the question just as you are trying to do the calculation in your head. I actually yelled at her to shut up once.

"The tests aren't too hard, but they are not unnecessarily easy - and the questions in them aren't as pointless as many of the ones I remember from GCSE."

Others were initially perplexed by maths questions about "bar and whisker" graphs, having never encountered them at school.

The lawyer found the ICT test the most frustrating as it set challenges using fictional programs on a fictional desktop. "It's pointless that they don't just let you get on with it in PowerPoint," she said.

But the Training and Development Agency for Schools has avoided using a known software brand to avoid disadvantaging teachers who have used other systems, and to check their ability to adapt to new programs.

All the panel found the literacy test "pretty easy", especially the spelling and grammar questions. But the journalist said he had been pleasantly surprised by the reading comprehension section.

"It's brilliant that they have to wade through a nearly unintelligible government announcement," he said. "It's good preparation for the jargon-filled waffle teachers will face throughout their careers."

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