Out for the count

15th June 2001 at 01:00
The numeracy skills test is robbing teachers of a career and the profession of valuable new recruits, writes Harvey McGavin

The controversial numeracy skills test looks like provoking a summer of discontent. Teacher trainers and students are united in their opposition to an exam that they say could make or break promising careers. Some trainers are demanding the Government ditches the test, while students who started training on the understanding that successful completion of their course would guarantee qualified teacher status, only to fall at the extra hurdle of skills tests, could mount a legal challenge.

And some trainee teachers, who have passed their course but now find themselves barred from taking jobs in the state sector, are looking for work in independent schools or moving abroad.

Trainees and newly qualified teachers in England have to sit literacy and numeracy tests (an ICT test is due to be introduced next year); their counterparts in Wales and Scotland are spared the ordeal. Trainees have four attempts at each, but if they fail to reach the pass mark of 60 per cent they cannot get qualified teacher status, so cannot teach in the state sector. If NQTs who qualified after May 2000 fail the numeracy test after five attempts, they cannot pass induction and cannot continue to work in the state sector or in non-maintained special schools. Both groups, under present rules, are barred for life.

The 45-minute computerised numeracy test introduced this year - last year was a paper test - has caused particular concern as students have struggled with the format, technical difficulties and time limits. It includes a mental arithmetic test delivered through earphones.

Michael Moore, legal adviser to the National Union of Students, says any legal action would be based on the claim that Estelle Morris's predecessor as education secretary, David Blunkett, exceeded his powers in introducing the tests. "These students embarked on a course with the expectation that they would get qualified teacher status if certain things happened," he says. "That was changed by the introduction of these tests."

A spokesman for the Teacher Training Agency says appeals will be considered only when "circumstances beyond the candidates' control prevent them from completing the tests or significantly impair their performance". He will not confirm an overall failure rate reported by one TTA area representative of 27 per cent - even higher than the 23 per cent Brighton University reported in The TES two weeks ago - but promises that an indication of the pass rate will be given in the autumn "when we have more meaningful figures".

By way of consolation, he says those who fail the test four times will find "the skills they have picked up in teacher training valuable in other walks of life, including working in schools, if not in the classroom".

Mike Newby, chair of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET), will be calling on Estelle Morris to use the mandate of a freshly elected government to rethink the tests. "We are all forthe Government's wish to raise standards of literacy and numeracy in teachers, but this is the worst way they could have gone about it," he says. "The tests have been introduced at a point when there is a rising crisis in the supply of teachers; that we should make it almost impossible for some teachers to go into teaching at such a time seems stupid.

"Computerised tests are a bad way of testing what the DfEE wishes to test. There have been all sorts of problems - there are stories of people turning up and the test centres being closed, of others being unable to log on, and of computers crashing.

"But the biggest problem is the 'four strikes and you're out' aspect. The Government has been pretty good on teacher education, but they have got this badly wrong."

It's difficult to find figures for the numbers who have failed this year's numeracy test, but anecdotal evidence from UCET members suggests that pass rates in some colleges have slumped from 97 per cent for last year's paper-based assessment to around 75 per cent this year. Already the casualties are piling up (see case studies below). A fourth-year BEd student at Plymouth University, predicted a 2:1 and with a job lined up for September, is in "real distress" after failing for the fourth time.

One college specialising in training mature students reports difficulties with the computerised exam. It has advised two "very bright" middle-aged students who have each failed three times not to make a fourth attempt in the hope that the new government might revoke the tests before September, when they are due to take up jobs.

Other teacher trainers voice similar concerns. "Students are uptight and aggrieved," says one. "It has been foisted upon them after they signed up for the course when it wasn't a requirement."

Another head of faculty says only around 70 per cent of students passed first time and estimates that up to 10 per cent of his BEd students who complete the course will not go on to work as teachers. "This has been a disaster. A significant number of perfectly competent teachers will be unable to teach. The tests should be scrapped."

An IT tutor at a London teacher training college criticises the computer-based format. "We have people who are near the top in numeracy who are completely fazed; some of them are on their third attempt. These are students who, if I were a headteacher, I'd have in my school. There is no question about their ability to do the job."

The head of a BEd course at a Yorkshire college says the tests undermine colleges' authority. "It is like telling us - 'we don't trust your assessment or results'. We should be trusted as professionals to audit students."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills insists there are no plans to rethink the tests. "They are designed to test whether an NQT has the necessary skills to carry out the job," she says. "We understand that for people who fail four times it will be quite a blow. But we are committed to raising standards in schools."

See letters, page 31

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