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Ministers, get back to Brexit and leave teachers alone

It’s a colossal waste of money and many schools do them already, so what's the point of the new times-tables test?

Primary maths

It’s a colossal waste of money and many schools do them already, so what's the point of the new times-tables test?

A quick maths test:

Q1. The Year 4 times-tables test the government plans to introduce from next year will cost £5 million. How many children are there in England in Year 4? So to calculate the cost per child, divide by 5. No…hold on. Is it the other way around?

Q2. If the new times-tables test prioritises the 6, 7, 8, 9 and 12 times tables, and gives children six seconds to answer each question, what is the price per second per question per child?

Stop, stop, stop! This is more pointless than Pointless. What’s going on?

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, has branded these new tests an enormous waste of money. Worse, he complains, not only will they take teachers and children away from learning, but “the results will be used by Ofsted to hold schools to account”.

For sure they will, though the tests’ architect, standards minister Nick Gibb, merely reiterated his usual tedious mantra: “Leaving primary school with a fundamental grasp of basic numeracy is as important as leaving [while] being able to read. And just as the phonics check has helped more children learn to read, this will ensure more pupils know their times tables.”

I’m never sure whether the old habit of children chanting times tables in class really died out. Perhaps it did and needed to return. I don’t think it hurt anyone, and may have done them good (though simply reciting something from memory doesn’t necessarily mean children know how to apply it).

Perhaps we should feel grateful that anyone found time to speak on this important subject, while the government – indeed, the whole of Parliament – is in meltdown over Brexit. Who knows? At the current rate of resignations, Mr Gibb might be Brexit secretary by Monday, and prime minister by Wednesday.

'It stinks'

Beyond the colossal waste of money, when schools are already desperately short of cash, there’s only one point to make about this times-tables test: what’s the point of it? Nick Gibb himself declared how easy the check would be to do, “as most schools already do some kind of multiplication check anyway”. So why add one?

We know why. Some years ago, Mr Gibb insisted that all schools teach phonics: to ensure he got his way, he forced a test on schools. Now he asserts that “the phonics check has helped more children to learn to read”. Does he have research evidence for that? Or does he just “know it”, as politicians so often do?   

That job done, Mr Gibb’s latest enthusiasm is for tables – with the same test-based enforcement. Like so many ministers before him, he is viscerally incapable of trusting teachers to do a good job so he imposes a test to check up on them, adding the threat of Ofsted as belt and braces. It stinks.

Time for a simultaneous equation:

Ministers’ trust in schools = 0

Teacher morale = 0

Thus we can prove that ministers’ trust = teacher morale. When trust is low, so is morale. If ministerial trust is high…well, that’s never been tested.

I guess, having moaned so often, I’m off Mr Gibb’s Christmas-card list. Come to think of it, I was never on it. Besides, when he’s the only minister left, he’ll be too busy handling five or more portfolios to worry about sending cards – or about times tables.

There is a serious point here, though. In a democracy it’s not the role of ministers to micromanage from a great height (it’s bad enough when heads do that). Their part should be to set strategic direction, then support and resource it (remember resourcing?) and monitor the outcomes.

Ministers should stop telling teachers what to do and how to do it. They should leave the professionals to do the job and, given the current state of government, get back to rearranging the deckchairs while the ship of government sinks.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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