All right, I confess. Having read the Daily Mirror report from a few days ago about education secretary Nicky Morgan and her new times table tests for 11-year-olds, I tried the paper’s “quick-fire tables quiz”, billed as “fiendish”. When I scored 10/10 (hurrah!), I couldn’t resist sharing the result on Twitter. How childish!
I don’t normally regard myself as competitive, so I’m not proud of my showing off. But I am quite good at mental arithmetic. I was well taught in primary school, learning my tables up to 12 long before the age of 11. The good teaching I received went further: when planning budgets (something school leaders do a great deal these days), I always calculate percentages in my head – and get the decimal point in the right place. Useful stuff.
So of course I agree that primary schools should insist on children learning their times tables: and if that involves the old-fashioned method of chanting them, let alone more “modern” classroom strategies such as times tables bingo or last one standing, so be it.
So am I supporting education secretary Nicky Morgan? No.
The article in the Mirror also harked back to her refusal (on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in February 2015) to answer maths questions. Sensibly she had observed that, if she just got one sum wrong, the entire story would focus on that rather than on the policy she was announcing: good TV but lousy politics.
So we’d do better to forget that non-story and concentrate on the idea of compulsory times table tests for 11-year-olds. Schools test pupils’ knowledge of tables all the time, and have done for years. Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT teaching union, commented: “As primary school pupils already have to learn their times tables by the end of Year 4, Nicky Morgan’s announcement is clearly not about educational attainment but about the introduction of yet another test.”
She’s right, but what the piece might have expanded on more usefully was Morgan’s subtext about “action against teachers and schools who don’t come up to scratch”.
Yes, we’re back to that again. It’s important to remember, as we start another year, that compulsory government tests have little to do with children’s achievements (despite the stress that it puts them and their families under – Ms Blower also reminded us that our pupils are also the most tested in Europe). On the contrary, they are all about testing schools: league tables; Progress 8; benchmarks; tests are all about nailing down schools.
Or worse: I don’t know whether Ms Morgan threatened action specifically against teachers, or more generally against schools: but government talk on standards is up-close and personal nowadays. Ministers call it cracking down on poor performance: I term it persecution of a once noble and now beleaguered profession.
One senses a rift forming between Ofsted’s boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, and the government on the constant pressure over targets and baseline measures. Sir Michael has even become cynical about ministers’ plans for the English Baccalaureate. But it’s somewhat futile: we are still seeing schools battered and their leaders sacrificed on the altar of “intervention”, interference that makes policymakers feel tough and plays to the right-wing press without necessarily having any positive impact on the life chances of children.
Times tables are just another element in this persecution: and schools are teaching them anyway. But if you hoped there might be more support and fewer brickbats for schools from government in 2016, you’ll be disappointed.
Fortunately, teachers are intrinsically optimistic: how else could we do the job? So I won’t lose faith: but I hope we’ll work together to expose the lunacies and viciousness of government’s bullying and overregulation of schools in 2016.
Happy New Year!
Dr Bernard Trafford (pictured) is headteacher of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. He tweets at @bernardtrafford