ith each new school year comes the excitement, anticipation and nervousness of what it will hold. For most children going into Year 6, this will be the climax of their time in primary school. It is a time for the aims of primary education to be realised, and articulate, responsible, thoughtful and successful children to have the time of their lives. At the start of this year, however, many parents and teachers worry that the year will be over-dominated by test practice.
Year 6 teachers rightly feel keenly their responsibility to help children do their best in the national tests each May. They are also aware of the pressures on the school relating to the school's results - performance tables, school targets. Since the introduction of tests in 1995, Year 6 teachers have developed strategies to organise the year and make sure that their children are properly prepared to do their best in the tests. It is now time to take stock, and to recognise that some of these strategies need to be refined or changed.
In some schools mathematics teaching at some stage in Year 6 may stop, to be replaced by revision and test practice. But is this the best kind of test preparation and the most effective use of time? Are parents and teachers right to be worried that for some children Year 6 is over-dominated by test preparation?
Preparing for a test has never been a popular task. Time spent on revision can be time well spent. Everyone wants to ensure children do themselves justice. Good preparation is about building children's confidence as well as securing their knowledge and understanding of mathematics.
In some schools, however, mathematics teaching in Year 6 can become a series of test practice and refining test techniques. While analysis of test practice clearly can contribute to providing a clear focus for teaching, the numeracy strategy is clear that repeated practice of tests at the expense of continued teaching can be counter-productive. Of course children should know beforehand what the test papers are like and how they should answer the questions. Many schools use the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's optional tests in Year 3, 4 or 5 and many children will be familiar with the style of national tests. We would be doing them a disservice if we did not provide any test practice, but there is a danger in excessive rehearsal. Children switch off, lulled into thinking that the questions they have been doing will be repeated in the test. There is nothing more disconcerting for children than to find the test questions are not the same as those they have rehearsed. There is little pleasure for teachers and children in having yet another test paper as the menu for the day's lesson.
An essential element of good test preparation is to continue to teach. It is based on the belief that the better children are prepared in mathematics, the better they are prepared for answering questions in the test. It is not the test they need to be prepared for, it is preparation for the test questions. There is a difference. An important ingredient in this is to help children to be ready to tackle questions involving aspects of mathematics that might appear in a context that they have not met beforehand.
The ability to do well in a maths test reflects confidence and a positive attitude as well as secure knowledge. The positive changes QCA are to introduce to the tests in 2003 mean there will be more questions that require children to use their skills in using and applying mathematics. When faced with an unfamiliar question, we cannot draw on a store of practised questions, we have to think how we can use and apply what we have learned. The best preparation for this is to be introduced to non-routine questions to discuss different approaches that might or might not apply to finding a solution. Being confident that we can recognise what will not work equips us better to find what will work.
The 'loose' hierarchical nature of mathematics means that the more we know, understand and can do helps us to cope with the unfamiliar question set at a demand well within our understanding. Enhancing children's knowledge of mathematics is more effective than practising what they can already do. If children can multiply thousands by hundreds using the grid method, what fear have they of the thinly disguised test questions involving hundreds multiplied by 10s?
Over the summer, a former England cricket captain claimed he had only met one international batsman who was not nervous before an innings. Many starting the new school year, teachers as well as children, will have been nervous. The aspirations of the Numeracy Strategy are that children are taught mathematics outstandingly well during primary school and leave thoroughly numerate. The tests are a good measure of this but our nervousness is that they should not dominate mathematics lessons.
Dr Tim Coulson is national director of the National Numeracy Strategy