Out for the count?

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Some educationists say the numeracy test is a pointless exercise that will needlessly deprive the profession of some excellent teachers. Sue Jones reports

The day Mary Smith, a mature entrant to teaching, received her letter of congratulations from Education Secretary David Blunkett was the summit of a long climb. But the beautifully decorated teacher's certificate that came with it has already lost some of its gilt, and after next July the Government may refuse to employ her.

As a latecomer to higher education, Mary Smith (not her real name) worked long and hard to qualify. Now she has a job she loves, but a 45-minute event next February could force her to hand in her notice. She has to re-sit her numeracy test.

The test, administered by the Teacher Training Agency, is not about the ability to teach maths. It deals with the skills required to carry out some of the professional duties teachers have to fulfil outside the classroom, such as target-setting, analysing benchmark data and interpreting Ofsted statistics. Without it, no new entrant can obtain the qualified teacher status necessary for employment in a maintained school.

This new primary teacher has already overcome many hurdles in her determination to enter the profession. After leaving school with no qualifications 20 years ago, she became a hairdresser, but her life took a new direction 10 years ago when she started work in a school.

She has been a lunchtime supervisor and classroom assistant and has worked in learning support. She believes her own experience as a pupil and a parent has given her an empathy with children struggling to learn, and with parents whose own experience of the education system has been limited or unhappy. Her headteacher was sufficiently impressed to encourage her to start the long process of becoming a qualified teacher eight years ago.

"At first I was too frightened," she says. "I'd been out of school so long and had no qualifications. But I took an access to art course to see if I could cope with essays and fit the work in with my family life." Then an access to teaching course led to an education degree, which she gained with a 2:1. Although she had never been confident about maths, she was able to take on the training course and has not come across any maths she cannot teach. The blow came with the numeracy test.

It wasn't there when she started her training. It was introduced after the course had begun for students due to graduate in 1999. They have five chances to pass it by the time they complete their induction year next July. Chance number three comes next February.

Mary Smith has always had difficulties with exams, so failing the first test was a distressing experience that made the first re-sit even worse. "I went to pieces. My neck tightened up, and I came out crying. So did many of the others." Some candidates reacted angrily, she says, when they saw their futures undermined by a threat for which they had had little warning or preparation.

The TTA's website (www.teach-tta.gov.uk) has extensive information about the test, "which is designed to assess those aspects of numeracy that are required by teachers to carry out their role effectively". It tests mental arithmetic, using and applying general arithmetic and using and interpreting statistical information.

The test, which is still under development, lasts about 45 minutes and will be computerised from February, giving candidates an instant printout of their results. Unsuccessful candidates will get feedback indicating their weaker areas.

The TTA believes the test sets a professional standard and wants everyone to pass. In addition to the website, it is developing a supporting booklet and CD-Rom. Twenty-three thousand candidates have passed the test so far and the TTA believes the remaining 722 can do so with the support of their induction tutors.

But asking for help is not easy. "Being part of a small group that's failed has stigmatised us all," says Mary Smith. "They're now dealing with people who are very fragile about their maths. The test has knocked everybody's confidence."

Her headteacher is supportive, but she believes the stigma of failure will prevent teachers from seeking help. Being in a new job makes people feel vulnerable, and they will not use the school computers to contact the TTA website in case other staff realise they have failed the test.

Although her local authority has a good reputation for its induction programme, she is reluctant to ask for help and draw attention to her failure. The computerisation of the test has also made her feel more vulnerable to exam panic.

Education professionals and the teacher unions have raised concerns about the test. Rod Bramald, lecturer in education at the University of Newcastle, believes it has been introduced too quickly, and that the pilot materials are not yet right. All candidates have to sit the same test, whichever phase they have trained for, but, of the sample exercises he has seen so far, only 50 per cent have been appropriate to a primary school. Dealing with unfamiliar contexts worsens candidates' test results, a conclusion he believes was proved by research by Margaret Brown for the Assessment of Performance Unit in the 1980s.

Nor does he consider the numeracy skills necessary for a newly qualified teacher. "Much of this is for middle managers. The test is asking too much too soon. At this stage people need to get used to classroom management and other aspects of teaching. They don't need these skills so early on."

The National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers agree that the test should not have been introduced after the start of a training course. "It was sprung on everyone midway through the year," says Olive Forsythe, press officer for the NUT. "It's hardly the way to introduce a reform."

Olwen Gunn of the NASUWT's education department wants to see "as much support as possible for these teachers so that they can complete their induction and gain qualified teacher status".

The National Association of Head Teachers fears that the profession will lose good recruits, especially mature entrants. "It could be an awful waste of otherwise perfectly good teachers," says Jeff Holman, assistant secretary (education). "It's daft to put more hurdles in the way of people who want to be teachers."

Despite the time, effort and money she has invested, Mary Smith may be one of those lost to teaching. "If I don't pass in February, I will leave. I can't put myself through it again. I will have to go into private teaching, or get other work."

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