Counting the votes

13th March 2015 at 00:00

Two twos are four, three twos are six, four twos are eight.yes, learning times tables by heart is back in fashion for English primary children and they must all know them by the time they leave at 11. Education secretary Nicky Morgan seemed eminently practical and sensible on television recently, but I couldn't help musing on the conversation between her and the prime minister that may have brought this initiative about.

"Nicky, I'd like you to oversee education for a while. Although he did lots of jolly good things, for some strange reason the last minister wasn't the teachers' favourite. And teachers represent rather a lot of votes."

"Thank you, David. I'm really excited about it. There's an awful lot of things I can do to help cut the teachers' workload."

"Ah, let's think before we jump, Nicky. Teachers might complain about their workload, but who doesn't these days? Let's not forget we haven't changed their holidays. And they don't start until 9am. And they finish at 4pm. Heavens, they're home in time for Neighbours!"

"But even primary teachers have masses of marking to do, especially as we've made them ignore the creative curriculum."

"You're forgetting that we've given them non-contact time for marking and planning. And don't forget that we're trying to drive up standards. Nobody ever got a job because they could build a replica of Windsor Castle from a couple of Corn Flakes packets."

"But David, if you want the votes, I'll need to offer them something more than a sympathetic smile."

"True. Let me think. What is primary education all about? Getting a solid grounding in English and maths, isn't it? So why not insist that by the age of 11, all children should know their tables up to twelve times, have the skills to write a short story and be able to read a simple novel?"

"It's a thought, David. But if you look at the records of past education ministers, you'll find lots of them advocated learning times tables by heart. And it never happened."

"I still think it's a jolly good idea. If you know your tables you can do all sorts of useful things, like instantly calculate the plates and cutlery you need to set the table."

"So should I tell teachers to chant tables with classes in the mornings?"

"That might be a little too close to the 1950s approach. We don't want to appear decadent."

"And these stories. The trouble is, we've spent the past 10 years telling teachers to get children to analyse chunks of text rather than reading stories. Some pupils probably don't know what a complete story is."

"Well, now's the time to start. Teachers welcome a sensible initiative, and you've got the personality to get this across, Nicky."

"Thank you, David. And this idea of being able to read a short novel. Schools are still short of resources to help children read. We've got so many languages and dialects in many of our inner-city primaries."

"Have we? I haven't visited any of those. Well, try a softer approach, Nicky, and do what you can. And tell them we'll maintain the education budget if they vote us back in."

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:


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