Yet again the government misdiagnoses the problemby Andrew King / March 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
Eight times nine is… come on, quickly… the answer is… no?
Those who have struggled with their times tables will remember the horror of not being able to recall the right answer on the spot. Unfortunately, in yet another over simplistic effort to tackle the problem of innumerate Britain, times tables tests have been put firmly back on the agenda. Education Secretary Damian Hinds has announced that a new online test will be rolled out for year four pupils this spring. Children will have to quickly answer multiplication questions against the clock.
To be clear, as a headteacher, former maths inspector and author of children’s books on mathematics I am all for children having a rock-solid recall of number facts, but the truth of the matter is that our primary school children are now really rather good at their times tables. For some time there has been an emphasis on knowing your tables in the SATs tests for seven year-olds (Key Stage 1) and 11 year-olds (Key Stage 2)—a national times tables test doesn’t really add anything to the mix.
But here’s the thing: whatever you think about times tables, the proposed test is indicative of the problem that the government keeps fiddling at the margins. The increasingly squeezed public funding available is not being used to tackle the actual issue.
We need to look wider and be more ambitious, because Britain has serious problems with innumeracy. The gap between ourselves and our East Asian competitors is wide. In the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), England’s mean score was 546, compared to Singapore which scored 618, and topped the study for maths at both years five and nine. Furthermore The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 says that the “poor mathematics skills of England’s low-achieving pupils stands out as a weakness of England’s education system” and “the gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils in mathematics in England is above the OECD average and is equivalent to over eight years of schooling.”
If we want to see some improvements we must demand government action on the real issue: what is shocking is the poor rate of progress in mathematics and basic number skills through the secondary phase. “Key stage three: the wasted years?” was published by OfSTED in 2015 and concluded that teaching at key stage three “failed to challenge and engage pupils.”
Look at the expectations in mathematics in the national curriculum for the end of Key Stage 2 (end of primary school) and then compare it to a GCSE Foundation Mathematics paper where you can get a grade four or five (grade C or a weak B in old money, so deemed a “good” pass in school league tables). The paucity of expectation and ambition in the system over five years of secondary maths teaching is beyond tragic—it is damning.
This isn’t about bashing secondary colleagues—we all get enough of that already. Policy must be targeted more effectively to support the secondary phase. One of the conclusions in the OfSTED report that caused frustration and gritted teeth was that “Key Stage 3 must become a higher priority for secondary school leaders.” Schools would love to act on this, however problems with recruitment and retention of suitably qualified maths specialists show little sign of abating. If you are going to deploy your best teachers where are you going to put them? Years seven or eight, or the sharp end, years ten and 11, where you are publicly judged in league tables and by OfSTED?
A times tables test for nine year olds is not going to solve anything. If Hinds is hell-bent on testing as a strategy then wouldn’t it be better placed in the middle of secondary schooling? These did used to exist but were costly, enormously unpopular and scrapped in 2010 but, as they say, what gets tested gets done.
What solutions are there for innumerate Britain? The government must be more ambitious and take action to raise the level of expectation in secondary schools and monitor progress more rigorously. However, this is only achievable if the government is more successful with strategies to recruit and retain the high quality staff that have the ability to translate raised ambition into results.