Maths test demand doesn't add up;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

19th November 1999 at 00:00
ANYONE wanting to be a teacher needs maths and English. Indeed all students enrolling this autumn will have been asked to provide proof that they have a grade C at GCSE, O-level or a recognised equivalent. What they will not have been told is that to gain full professional status they must also pass a numeracy test. In fact no one was told until a small booklet, outlining some of the demands of this test - which will include basic algebra, mental arithmetic and statistics - landed on the desks of initial teacher training providers at the beginning of October.

Students are understandably very upset, not least because the ground rules for qualification have changed since they were accepted on to their respective courses. Although they have been reassured that they can take the test as many times as they want, it appears that they will not pass their induction year until they have got it. Students argue that this is an act of bad faith by the Government and are urging them to treat this year as a dummy run.

But the numeracy test, along with the literacy and technology tests due to be implemented next year, has implications beyond the anger of this year's cohort of students. The most obvious is that the Government no longer has any faith in its own qualifications system.

Although it argues that these tests are tailored to the demands of the teaching profession, achieving a grade C has always been enough to indicate that a teacher has achieved a sufficient standard in and knowledge of mathematics or English to apply it. Now apparently it is not.

Nor, seemingly, does it trust the way in which many of the skills required by the new tests are currently assessed. The Teacher Training Agency has already atomised then itemised more than 80 competencies which students must have by the end of their course. Yet it appears that only a formal timed test will now do.

So students will no longer be able, like a certain chief inspector, to refuse to halve three-quarters. They will not be able to pause for an eternity before answering a question, albeit with the right answer, because their exam will be timed, nor will their job be secure if they fail to multiply seven by eight. I use these examples not as a cheap shot at Woodhead, Blunkett and Byers' expense (though the temptation to mock is ever present) but to illustrate that an aptitude for mental arithmetic is not a prerequisite for prominence in education.

This raises another important question. What are these additional tests saying about what it means to be a good teacher? I am pretty certain that it is possible to be an inspirational English teacher without having a good head for statistics. I am also fairly confident that a truly dynamic maths teacher does not need to know how to identify the grammatical nuances of a particular sentence. My own maths teacher, who was magnificently patient with her reluctant pupil, spoke with a marked Polish accent and her English was attractively non-standard. By contrast I have seen academically able students flounder in front of a group of adolescents.

I have always known that Ballykissangel is a rural idyll, despite its alarming mortality rate. But it passed into the realms of blissful fantasy two weeks ago when the charmingly maverick teacher Brendan became head of the local school by convincing the inspector that his mind worked like the eight-year-olds he taught. Now I realise that being a teacher is about more than what goes on in the classroom, and that a certain professional competence is very important, but I am reluctant to sacrifice a genuine ability to engage and inspire a class on the altar of testable generic skills.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer in education at King's College, London

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