'The fact is, learning times tables does pupils a world of good'

Teachers should welcome the proposed tests with open arms, says one headteacher, as he argues that knowing times tables off by heart sets children up for life

Chris Wilkins

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Do you know your times tables?

I do – if someone asks me to tell them what 6x9 is I’ll tell them “54” within a second or two. But I am lucky to be part of a generation who had that useful instant recall of times tables drummed into us. Many people today are good at mental arithmetic – and can get to the answer quickly but I think that having my times tables instilled in me in my childhood was a gift.

They’re not perfect. It’s true that 12 is an arbitrary cut off – and that ideally, older pupils would know even more of them off by heart.

But, the fact remains that learning your times tables can do a pupil a world of good. These calculations will form the basis of much of what they learn in maths right up to (and even beyond) their GCSE courses, such as division, algebra and fractions. The skills also filter beyond maths – and can be particularly useful in other sciences, but most of all are useful in daily life. The ability to make these simple calculations is something that many of those who received a great education will take for granted, but it can be so helpful in modern life. Simple things, such as working out how much you owe on the restaurant bill, become much easier, without the need to pull a phone out and find the calculator app.

Breed confidence in pupils

Going back to education, knowing such a key skill can also breed confidence within pupils, something that becomes more and more important the closer they get to the exams that dominate the end of their school career. Being able to instantly calculate things that go a long way to solving bigger problems can be incredibly useful, particularly under time pressure.

And yet, there are so many pupils across the country who simply haven’t learned their times tables properly. Many schools choose not to focus on these specific calculations at the appropriate age – and I think that’s a mistake. In our federation, children knowing their times tables well is non-negotiable. The Department of Education clearly agrees with that assessment, because they’ve now announced details about the multiplication tables check first mooted in the Conservative Party manifesto last year.

I know that some people will instantly cry foul and insist that this is yet another burden on schools, but it really shouldn’t be. If schools are teaching their times tables, it will be an incredibly simple check that shouldn’t add more than a couple of hours a year to teacher workloads, while also giving people vital data about how pupils are progressing in this regard. As for the pupils, the check shouldn’t last more than five minutes – and when administered correctly shouldn’t give them or the teacher any additional pressure whatsoever.

The value of times tables

It’s true that giving schools another formal assessment isn’t ideal, but the data is simply too valuable – and the need to ensure children know this information too great. The added workload will be minuscule compared to what is gained when schools switch to sensible assessment and behaviour practices. Most importantly, it’s the right thing to do – children really should know their times tables.

The phonics check has worked wonders and given children who may not have been taught that vital information the opportunity to receive it. The times tables check could do the same – and could have the same success. Every child should know their times tables well and it is within our gift. A gift that will keep on giving.

Chris Wilkins is executive headteacher at The St Ninian Catholic Federation in Carlisle

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Chris Wilkins

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