The 45-minute warning
Should teachers know the difference between "illuminate" and "iluminate"? How about multiplying pound;1.50 by 250? Is it essential to life in the classroom that you learn how to deploy a semi-colon with the grace of an Elizabethan poet?
These are the questions that plague trainee teachers once a year when they are forced to take the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) English and maths tests - 45 minutes of nit-picking questions that can leave even the most cerebral maths teacher sweating like a penguin in a sauna.
Of course, the tabloids have made up their minds already. "Teachers given 28 attempts to pass test," said The Daily Mail, following last year's revelations that one trainee had taken the maths tests 28 times before scraping through.
Further hand-wringing greeted the discovery that some aspiring staff have taken the English and maths tests, which along with an ICT exam are essential to achieving qualification, more than 20 times every year. "Should such reprobates be teaching our children?" was the question the newspapers silently screamed.
Understandably, the tests haven't proved universally popular with trainers - not because they are against standards per se but because they believe the justification for the TDA tests doesn't add up. Unlimited retakes are the norm, so students, who have already invested considerable time and money in their training year, will generally continue sitting them until they achieve a passable score. As one teacher trainer put it: "It's a waste of their time and a waste of ours." That's not to mention the fact that, in order to get a place on a training course, students must already have a C or above in GCSE maths and English.
"I've never seen the sense in them. If you've got a standard you want people to meet, why not test them before entering the profession?" asks John Pugh, course director at Cumbria Primary Teacher Training, a consortium providing school centred teacher training (SCITT). Sue Collier, course director at Bromley Schools Collegiate in Kent, has similar reservations. "They're a nightmare. We have some very able trainees whose confidence is totally knocked by not passing one of the tests. We had one student who did not pass the numeracy test until the morning of the graduation."
But what is it like to face the dreaded TDA tests? And are they really as hard as all that? The TES Magazine challenged four trainee teachers to confront the TDA's virtual examination chamber of horrors: upwards of 28 questions in about 45 minutes, with a 60 per cent pass mark and the sorts of confusing multiple-choice questions you last eyed through the blur of a pub quiz. Would they charge to victory with colours flying? Or disgrace themselves before tutors and peers?
First up was Sue Thomas, a 48-year-old maths trainee at Bromley Schools Collegiate. The tests posed few problems for Sue, as a mature student, and a former freelance ICT teacher. She whizzed through the English test we gave her, picking up 38 marks out of a possible 48.
"I found it reasonably easy. I have had careers in industry and the public sector that involved writing lots of business cases and reports. I also read in my spare time, which helps me recognise correct English," she says. While she wrapped up the spelling section with a respectable 10 points, she found punctuation the hardest. "It was difficult to find enough corrections, so I found myself putting pairs of commas in to bump the numbers up."
Next to face the dreaded literacy test was John Short, a 25-year-old former barman and budding history teacher at the same training centre in Bromley, who approached the exam with more trepidation. "Despite my subject, I found literacy the most challenging. The fill-in-the-gaps exercise in the comprehension was hard, because there were often two answers I felt fitted. I think trainees struggle with the tests: one of my friends who is 22 has failed the literacy test and others in my cohort have not been as successful as they would have liked."
But while the delights of the English test include discerning the difference between "independently" and "independantly", telling a grammatical sentence from an ungrammatical one, and deciphering government jargon that would have even the brainiest mandarin chewing their standard-issue biro in frustration, it's nothing compared to the maths tests, whose enigmatic graphs and habit of barking certain questions out loud (yes, it's multimedia) make it possibly the most formidable of the three.
Rob Kelly, a 26-year-old primary trainee at Birmingham Primary Training Practice, another SCITT, was brave enough to step up to the plate.
"I found the test quite hard. The hardest part was working out the percentages and fractions quickly and then deciphering those box and whisker diagrams, probably due to lack of practice.
"I'm not great at maths, and at the time when I was at school there was an over-reliance on using the calculator."
Despite achieving a respectable B at maths GCSE, Rob just missed the pass mark on this occasion, scoring 16 out of 28, just shy of the 60 per cent threshold.
Luiz Camargo de Miranda, our fourth contender who is studying to be a science teacher at Hastings and Rother SCITT, passed with flying colours but added that the time pressure added to the difficulty and said that although he agreed with assuring basic standards of literacy and numeracy: "I'm not sure if this test is the best way to do it. Maybe it should be a matter for the training courses."
Naturally, the TDA defend the tests, saying they have an important filtering function and that re-takes can be justified because, according to a spokesman: "it may take several attempts to pass a driving test - but that doesn't mean one will necessarily be a bad driver once qualified."
Most of the students we spoke to broadly supported them too.
"I do think teachers should prove they can spell and do maths," says John. "We are asked to improve literacy, numeracy and ICT standards, so should have to meet the minimum levels ourselves."
However, not all are convinced the skills tests are the best way to do this. "A teacher who has to re-take a test 28 times shouldn't be in the classroom," Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, told The TES Magazine. "Teachers should be able to read and write and add up, and if they can't do that they shouldn't be a teacher."
In 2005-06, the last set of available figures, over 32,000 trainees sat the tests, between 75 to 80 per cent passing on the first attempt. Trainees took the maths and English tests an average of 1.4 times before they hit the pass mark.
The TDA has no plans to scrap them. So it looks like unlucky trainees will have to pore over "illuminate" and "iluminate" for many years to come.
Training in: Maths
Score: 79 per cent
Training in: History
Score: 83 per cent
Verdict: "the hardest test"
Training in: Primary
Score: 57 per cent
Luiz Camargo de Miranda
Training in: Science
Score: 86 per cent
Verdict: "easy, but time pressure a problem"
How well would you do?
- A group of pupils produced a play for charity. It ran for two nights and 250 tickets were printed for each night. They sold all the tickets at pound;1.50 each (which cost 10p each to print) and a total of 500 cans of drink at 40p each (they cost 30p each to buy). Stage props and costumes came to pound;110. How much money did they raise?
- A teacher organised a walking trip for the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. It was set to cover nine kilometres, with two rest breaks of 20 minutes each. It was estimated that the pupils would cover four kilometres an hour and they needed to reach their destination by 15.00. What is the latest time they could set out?
- Fill in the gap from the following list. "The headteacher ________ welcomed the new pupils into the school." Formaly. Formerly. Formally. Formaley.
- Fill in the gap with the grammatically correct phrase. "A number of projects will be carried out during the day and the children _______ a range of artistic skills." Practise. Will practice. Practice. Will practise.
Numeracy: pound;640; 12.05
Literacy: formally; will practise.