None of the top-performing school systems that ministers want to catch up with in global maths rankings use the kind of national testing of times tables unveiled in England this week, TES can reveal.
Computerised tests – to be taken by all Year 6 pupils from 2017, covering times tables up to 12x12 – are being introduced by education secretary Nicky Morgan as part of a bid by the government to raise England’s standing in the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) league tables.
Ms Morgan has said the tests are part of an “unapologetically ambitious” goal to put England in the world’s top five for maths by 2020.
Yet of the current Pisa top five – Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea (see box, right) – none set national multiplication table tests for children at primary level, according to TES research.
“If the top five don’t do this, you have to ask the question about why we’re introducing yet another test,” said Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union.
Concerns are also being raised about whether primaries will have the computers necessary for the tests. Meanwhile, the head of a government-backed scheme to raise the quality of maths teaching has warned that the test could do “more harm than good”.
Behind the times?
The Department for Education declined to respond when asked by TES if the testing plan was based on international evidence.
But Tim Oates, research director at Cambridge Assessment and a former government adviser, said that the tests could help England catch up. “Other countries don’t do this because they don’t need to, and that’s the point,” he said. “The government wants to encourage higher attainment in maths. Would schools prefer that this was done by something elaborate and intrusive such as another numeracy strategy?”
Professor Lianghuo Fan, a University of Southampton academic and former maths teacher and teacher trainer in China, told TES that pupils in Shanghai were expected to memorise times tables up to 9x9.
“Schools test this at the age of 7, and some also at 8 or 9, and then pupils go on to other things,” he said. “There’s no state-wide test – it would be unnecessary. Each school will make sure pupils master the times tables.”
He said the national tests were “very much a UK initiative” but had the potential to be effective, adding: “I see it as a signal from the government to highlight the importance of grasping the basic mathematical facts.”
Helen Drury, director of Mathematics Mastery, a DfE-funded teaching programme influenced by Singapore’s approach to maths, said that primary pupils in the Asian city state didn’t sit separate state-run times tables tests, although other maths tests required “plenty of multiplication”.
Dr Drury raised concerns about Ms Morgan’s plan: “The big risk…is that teachers feel pressure to test children all the way through, and the test becomes the learning experience,” she said. “Depending on how the teacher responds to that pressure, it might do more harm than good.”
Pupils in Hong Kong are expected to know times tables, and to use them to answer more complex questions, but are not tested separately on them, according to a London-based spokesman for the territory.
Hye-Won Lee, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation in Seoul, told TES that the South Korean government had abolished national tests for primary pupils. But multiplication tables were still an important part of the curriculum, and most pupils have learned them by the age of 8.
A spokesperson for the Taipei Representative Office in the UK said pupils in Taiwan did not sit national tests until the age of 15.
Meanwhile, concerns have emerged about whether primary schools in England have enough IT resources to allow all their Year 6 pupils to take the new test at the same time.
“There’s an assumption that all schools will have access to the right equipment and be able use it,” Dr Bousted said. “But the logistics might be more complex…Government IT projects generally don’t run smoothly.”
Professor Robert Coe, director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, said that the new test was a “simplistic” approach. “If you want to change teachers’ behaviour, you have to educate them, not constrain them,” he said.
But primary teacher Jon Brunskill said: “I think most teachers will be pretty relaxed because they already teach kids times tables.”
In an article for the TES website (bit.ly/TimesTables), he writes that times tables are “the Rosetta Stone of maths, the key that opens the otherwise impenetrable door”.
Pisa 2012 maths scores
1 Shanghai, China 613
2 Singapore 573
3 Hong Kong, China 561
4 Taiwan 560
5 South Korea 554
26 UK 494