Nothing to fear but the fear of numbers

28th January 2000 at 00:00
A MILLION years ago when I was taking my 11-plus, the newspapers liked to print sample questions to show the world what tough tests the nation's children were facing. "Could you answer this?" shrieked the headlines in my parents' Daily Express.

Evidently the popular press had a greater respect for our schools and children in those days, because the expected response was, no, the questions were too difficult for most adults, never mind what they did to the children.

Some of us did get through, in spite of the questions, and the knowledge that the rest of our lives depended on the result. The fear of failure which kept some children and their parents awake at night was not to be brushed aside as lightly as the headlines, of course, which was one good reason why the 11-plus has very nearly vanished as a universal selective filter.

But I was vividly reminded of those sample questions a week ago when the Teacher Training Agency published its own examples of the sort of questions trainee teachers can expect in their new maths test this summer. They appear, of course, after the fevered controversy which followed the announcement that the new tests would be sprung on fledgling teachers almost at once, with only a few months to build up their skills and confidence.

"Unfair," howled the headlines this time. The brightest and best recruits would be frightened off, just when we needed them most. Even after the sample questions had appeared, Doug McAvoy of the National Union of Teachers was worrying about the potentially brilliant music or arts teacher who couldn't add up so brilliantly.

So what was the fuss about? Easy-peasy. What an anti-climax. The only surprise is that these laughably simple questions haven't, so far as I know, been pilloried as such in the media. Try this one now if you didn't have a go at the mental arithmetic lst week: "In a year group of 125 pupils, 80 per cent achieved full attendance. How many were absent on at least one occasion?" If you didn't work that out as 25 within a few seconds I would be surprised, and the others aren't much harder. Only one of the written questions held me up, and that was because I didn't read it through properly, rather than because I wasn't using the permitted calculator.

The point is that all the sample test questions related to the sort of calculations any teacher would need to manage a classroom or department. Even music and arts teachers - perhaps especially music and arts teachers - need to be at home with number to do their jobs. It would be hard to function efficiently as a teacher if you couldn't pass this very basic test, and the only surprise is that the TTA suggests that it falls between GCSE and A-levels in difficulty. Have standards fallen after all?

I think not, at least in primary schools under the new Labour new order. The other day I sat in on a sizzling numeracy hour with a key stage 1 group, and I suspect that some of those seven-year-olds will soon be ready to tackle mental arithmetic at the current trainee-teacher test level.

The real challenge for the numeracy hour is whether it can produce a generation of children - and prospective teachers - without the fear of figures which has been allowed to become an acceptable part of our national persona. That will depend upon the teachers we have got, and are about to have, as well as on the children in their classrooms.

The start of Maths Year 2000 seems an excellent time to stop fussing about a simple test, and remember that none of us can get through the ordinary routines of life, work and leisure now without mastering the rules of the number game.

Patricia Rowan is a former editor of the Times Educational Supplement

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