Whether it was your half-term this week or last, it came as no surprise to see that the Department for Education was up to its usual shenanigans yet again last week when it announced – for about the fifth time – the introduction of a new multiplication tables check for Year 4 pupils. Why this needed announcing again wasn’t clear, although I can’t help but think that it was a handy cover for some other, less palatable, news.
Of course, the media set off in their usual vein by quizzing Nick Gibb about his times-tables knowledge. The minister did what ministers do: declined to answer. What’s that old phrase? Better to remain silent and be thought a fool…
Teachers responded to the government’s announcement either by welcoming it or by decrying it. Social media was flooded with arguments about whether or not learning the tables off by heart was valuable – yes, some people argued that they were unnecessary – and whether or not a new statutory test was the best way to ensure that children learned them. As usual, some of the debates got heated and anger boiled over about the role of tests in schools.
Unnoticed among all the other arguments was the fact that the new tests appear to be designed to test knowledge only of the simple tables facts. That might play well in the press, but it’s not great test design for schools. Pretty much the only valid argument for introducing a test is to ensure that schools step up their game in teaching the national curriculum requirement.
But the requirement in the curriculum is quite clear: in Year 4, pupils should learn “multiplication and division facts for multiplication tables up to 12×12”. By failing to include the related division facts in the statutory test, the DfE has provided an incentive for schools to focus only on the straightforward tables. This missed opportunity means that some children will continue to struggle with solving fractions problems or higher level maths challenges because they’re secure in only half of the vital detail. If the DfE really thinks that the only way to change teacher behaviour is via a test, then all they’ve achieved here is to change it for the worse.
I was made more angry, though, by something quite different. Frankly, there are far worse things in the world than whether or not a times-tables test is statutory or just done because a teacher fancies it one day. In fact, I think it’d be great if, instead of just a one-off test, the government money were invested in software available to all schools to use for regular testing and tracking of tables knowledge.
No, tables tests don’t bother me hugely. But later the same day, after the press releases and public statements about the times-tables check, the DfE snuck out some other rather important assessment documents. At about 2.30pm, it published the next batch of teacher assessment frameworks for 2019. After three years of interim arrangements, it has finally settled on keeping the same terrible system for teacher assessment, including the current set-up for writing assessment.
Credit where it’s due: this is the first time that we’ve known before the start of an academic year what’s coming – and we’ve finally seen the back of the pointless reading and maths frameworks at key stage 2.
But surely, after five years, the department could come up with something better than the awful writing assessment frameworks? Nobody trusts them, nobody values them – yet we’re stuck with them.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979