Who's failing whom?

4th June 2004 at 01:00
How trying to pass the QTS numeracy skills test almost drove one student teacher to suicide

I love religious education. I love teaching. Yet my postgraduate certificate in education course has been soured since I first sat and failed the Qualified Teacher Status skills tests last October.

I've never failed an assignment, I've passed my school placements with flying colours, and I've survived on five hours sleep a night to make sure that my lessons are the best they possibly could be. No one has complained about my teaching - yet until last week when I passed my numeracy QTS skills test at the sixth attempt, I was in a position where I would have finished the course without being awarded a PGCE.

As everyone knows these are the tests (in literacy, ICT and numeracy) that all PGCE students must pass in order to achieve QTS. Quite frankly, they go against every principle of good pedagogy every trainee teacher would have spent hours learning about.

The ICT test, for example, consists of a system that is unique to the test and does not reflect the way in which a teacher would use, for example, Microsoft Word. Among other things in this bizarre test, pressing the "Enter" button does not even take the cursor to the next line.

My difficulty was with the numeracy exam. The first half consists of questions muttered down a pair of headphones, with the student given 18 seconds to type in an answer (no calculator allowed: oh no, we would not want anything resembling a real-life situation to intrude upon these make-or-break tests). The second half consists of on-screen tables and graphs with a time limit which means you can only really spend two minutes on each question. Think about this: I, who am a model PGCE student, could have been denied Qualified Teacher Status, not because of my teaching but because I could not answer a sufficient number of 18-second maths questions. May I ask the Department for Education and Skills when exactly as an RE teacher will I need to do some complex mental arithmetic in 18 seconds?

When I first failed the numeracy test in October it became the predominate concern of the PGCE course. Having been failed at school in my maths, I was now going to be failed in adult life. This was not just stress: as I said, without passing the tests you cannot become a teacher. Sure, you can teach unqualified for five years, while continuing to take the tests, but why should I have the stigma of failure and a reduced salary because of a maths test?

On my part, since October the prospect of maths denying me QT status meant I have suffered from depression. This resulted in many sleepless nights worrying about what I would do come July if I had not passed the test. It meant stress for my partner who could see how ill the test was making me and - I hope the DfES is reading this - on my fifth failed attempt it prompted thoughts of suicide.

Thanks to a lot of help from the maths PGCE tutor and one of her students (giving up precious hours of their own time) I was finally able to pass the test. But rather than feeling happy, I feel quite empty. Trying to answer a set of ridiculously convoluted questions against the clock and memorising a load of lifeless rules that one week from now I will have forgotten, has done nothing for my teaching skills. Surely, tomorrow's teachers deserve better than this? The QTS skills tests must go.

The writer's name has been withheld to protect his future career

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