Licence to drill

9th February 1996 at 00:00
National test results were published last week. Kate Marlowe raises some ethical dilemmas about the whole process and its return to learning by rote

* The test papers arrive at school weeks before the test date. They are sitting in the school office where anyone can look at them. What do you do?

* Your maths co-ordinator tells you to look at the test papers prior to the test. What do you do?

* You have looked at the test papers and are planning the work for the fortnight before the tests. Do you give the children questions which are based on those papers?

nYou see a colleague write the answers on the board for some of the test questions. What do you do?

* You find out that a colleague with a Year 6 class has given the children extra time to complete their first test paper. What do you do?

* You find out that a colleague has been helping the children with questions during the test to the extent that they have been telling the children what to do. What do you do?

* You find out that a colleague has been carefully checking the children's answers during their tests and has been telling them when they've got the answers wrong. What do you do?

* The children you have taught in Year 6 are going to be set in Year 7 based on their test results alone. Your assessment of them over the year is not going to be taken into account. How do you feel? What do you do?

* Your high ability maths group has achieved good test results with 10 per cent gaining level 5. You are told the maths co-ordinator will be teaching this group next year. How do you feel? What do you do?

* You find out that another local school is doing all of the above in order to improve their test results. What do you and your colleagues do?

As the teacher of a Year 6 high ability maths group, I expected to be under some pressure when we were faced with key stage 2 tests but was surprised by the sources.

It came from the head teacher. There was a clear expectation that the children in our predominantly middle-class school would (not should) produce good results which could be used when showing prospective parents around.

It came, too, from the maths co-ordinator. There were repeated reminders to ensure that all the work, especially number-based material, had been covered.

From the parents, there was a series of phone calls asking how they could help their children, did they need extra tuition, what books could they buy.

From the children, there were requests for extra work, especially practice on number work. One child was extremely worried that he couldn't do long multiplication "the proper way", but only our way. He wanted to be taught the standard algorithm before the tests, even though he understood and used successfully another equally efficient method.

From me, there was the nagging doubt that perhaps I should be coaching the children. I believe that an understanding of mathematical concepts is best achieved through an investigative approach, but is it enough and will it show in the test results? Perhaps drilling in routine exercises would prepare them better for the test. My beliefs about the nature of mathematics, and ways of teaching and learning it were being challenged, as were my educational values which relate to the centrality of the child and the importance of care of the individual.

My generation of primary teachers had never before been faced with the pressure of preparing children for external tests or examinations. Although many of us experienced the build up to the 11-plus examination as children, we had never seen the build up from "the other side of the desk".

When I talk to retired teachers, a measure of their success appears to be how many of their class passed the 11-plus examination in each year. My mother vividly remembers the year that all her class passed. Does this mean that I will be seen as a "good" teacher only when all my Year 6 maths group can achieve Level 5?

As classroom teachers, what choices do we have when the tests start to loom large again in May? We could start to use the test from last year and write questions which are similar and coach the children to answer these questions. Will this improve their mathematical ability? Or will it merely drill them in doing questions of a similar type? There is an inherent problem with this method as children are constantly trying to remember the numerical method rather than trying to understand and solve the problem.

We could continue to teach as we have in previous years and ignore the tests until they are upon us. But I tried this approach and the external pressures became so marked that even I had to accept that the imminent tests were having an effect on a large number of people, including me.

It could be argued that we are becoming more Machiavellian about testing, accepting anything in order to get the results that senior management can then use to atttract more students in the future. This would mean the days of exploration and investigation in mathematics are numbered.

As primary teachers we need to help each other. We need time to reflect on our practice and to maintain those practices which do not conflict with our beliefs about the nature of maths and the teaching and learning of maths. But the problem is finding an adequate source of help.

From INSET courses we are only likely to find out what new changes we have to instigate in curriculum content or assessment, or how to choose a maths scheme, or how to survive Ofsted. A more powerful approach would be peer support where we had time to talk to others in similar positions and develop strategies for dealing with the dilemmas we are facing. Or are inter-school support groups no longer possible as we are now in direct competition with other schools in the area?

I am waiting to see how I react to the pressure from this year's tests in the light of these reflections. Further, how I will react when my own son has to sit the tests this coming year. If he asks me for extra work at home and effectively wants me to coach him, I am not sure how I will separate the emotional response of being a mother from the ethical stance of a teacher.

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