August is normally the silly season for news, but this year it seems to have started in early January with the announcement of national computerised tests for 11-year-olds on multiplication tables – yet another piece of evidence-free policy, imposing additional burdens on schools.
I taught maths for 28 years and my twin aims were rigour and enjoyment: the rigour of a beautiful geometry proof or a well-set-out solution to a quadratic equation (and, yes, the rigour of learning your tables) and the enjoyment of a subject that can have endless fascination for well-taught pupils, even if they are not very good at it.
I did my first teaching practice at Alderman White School, a secondary modern near Nottingham, and, 46 years later, I vividly remember teaching multiplication tables to a class of 13-year-olds. They loved the idea that each table had a pattern in it and, if you understood the pattern, the learning of the table became much easier. The normal class teacher – a sadistic and humourless deputy head – came into the lesson halfway through and, ruler in hand, he walked round the class testing the pupils by shouting at them and slamming down the ruler if they got it wrong. I recall one pupil being so terrified that he couldn’t even say the answer to 2x2. It was a happy moment for the pupils and me when the deputy head left the room to resume his no doubt more important work.
Learning to enjoy learning is important, but enjoying maths is especially important, since there are so many adults who claim to be weak at maths. I recall a Mathematical Association conference in Liverpool in the 1970s when the reception before the annual dinner was hosted by the Lord Mayor. The gist of his speech was that he was no good at maths and he was Lord Mayor Liverpool, while we mathematicians had no such lofty status.
Few people will admit to being bad at English, but it is perfectly respectable for adults to say they are bad at maths. Maths teachers have a constant battle with some pupils to persuade them that maths is doable when the message they are receiving from their parents is the opposite.
So I always tried to make maths fun, with extension activities, a maths club and the sort of facts about maths that Professor Marcus du Sautoy (article free to subscribers) puts across so well.
Alongside that, I increased the amount of assessment in maths lessons, so that pupil progress and understanding were checked at the end of each module of work. Leaving aside the ironies of still testing the 11 and 12 times tables (I stopped doing that in 1971) and the use of a high-tech testing method to do something so old-fashioned as tables testing, the main point is surely that teachers do not need the government to introduce a high-stakes test on one small branch of mathematics. Assessment is part of good teaching and learning.
Maths teachers include the rigour of assessment for learning in their lessons and they must also try to make maths enjoyable. The proposed tests won’t help with either rigour or enjoyment.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education and was formerly a secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets at @johndunford