Numbers game...

5th May 2000 at 01:00
The numeracy skills tests may be a minor hurdle for NQTs but, as Victoria Neumark reports, many are insulted by their introduction.

In a school, there are four classes of 25 pupils and three classes of 28 pupils. How many pupils are there in the school." So, how is your mental arithmetic? If you could get the answer (184 pupils) quite quickly and, even more, are aware that a variety of methods could be employed (for example, knowing that 4x25 is 100 and that 3x28=12x7=84; or that 25x2=50 and 2x50=100, while 3x28=3x25=75 and 3x3=9, added together come to 84), you are probably not too bothered at the prospect of being asked 10 minutes of similar mental arithmetic questions, followed by a written paper of maybe 20 others on data handling, shape and calculation.

In this case, you must be a cheerful final-year teacher trainee, and the Teacher Training Agency is your friend.

On the other hand, you may be one of many students who feels that when you went into teacher training, you did not know that at 11.30am on June 1 you would have to sit a 30- to 45-minute test designed to test your skill in numeracy - and that, without this test, you would not fully qualify as a teacher. This applies to all final-year trainees taking the test this summer and to many of those who will take it and the literacy and ICT tests, which will be added next summer. Then you might well be hopping mad.

You would be joining in anger such luminaries of the education world as Professor Ted Wragg and the leaders of the National Union of Teachers who feel the tests are rudimentary, an insult to trainees who must already have a grade C at GCSE or above in mathematics, and that it is "unfortunate", in the words of David Warren of the Institute of Education, that the tests have been announced so late on in the course of your training.

None the less, it looks clear that the tests will go ahead. The Government feels that there is a skills deficit in this country, which the numeracy and literacy hours in primary schools should address, and that it is important that those who adminster the literacy and numeracy strategies are themselves up to scratch. And secondary teachers should naturally be as conversant as primary teachers.

By spring 2001, the numeracy tests will be computerised, allowing for instant results. ut, until then, candidates will have just two attempts, on June 1 and July 26, to use pen and paper. Results will be known within four weeks; unsuccessful candidates will be given QTS status but only provisionally on their passing within the next four attempts.

How many will fail? The TTA sees no reason why anyone who has properly studied its helpful materials should fail, but it has not determined the pass mark or failure rate.

The TTA defines the test standard as key skills 23, "advanced" beyond GCSE, but advanced because of the contextualisation of the maths within passages of text relevant to the education profession, rather than because of the difficulty of operations demanded. Student leaders, who have voted to boycott the tests at the Institute of Education (ironically, the place which developed the pilots) and at Manchester Metropolitan, among other places, call the tests "condescending".

Says Neek Alyani, president of the students' union at the Institute of Education: "It is insulting to have to go back and take a test. The Government is downgrading the quality of degrees and GCSEs by imposing this on us."

There are objections, too, to the format. Mental maths questions will be given on audio tape played over a PA, which may give rise to uncertainty. Many critics have cited ambiguities in the questions and variations in the format of the answers (in our example above, should the answer be "184" or "184 pupils"?). Others have ridiculed the contextualising of number work within education, pointing out that unlikely situations, such as wildly fluctuating pupil rolls or ages, do not provide good tools with which to test mathematical competencies like averages.

Judging by the sample questions to be found on the Teacher Training Agency website (, the tests will assess competence in time, money, reading graphs and charts, calculating proportion and ratio, handling measurements, managing conversions and averages and simple formulae. No algebra, no trigonometry, little geometry.

The content is nothing that a bright Year 7 could not manage. So is June 1 to be the last straw that breaks the camel's back or, as the TTA has it, "reassurance that newly qualified teachers have the necessary numeracy skills to carry out their professional role."

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