We don't need a national times tables test

Learning the times tables is an important part of the primary school curriculum, but we don't need another new assessment at a huge cost to schools to 'prove' it, says Anne Heavey.

"Nick Gibb isn’t having a great week. First he had to tweak application arrangements for would be teachers and row back on his own reforms around the skills tests - although it’s great he’s actually conceded that recruiting teachers is a challenge… challenge mind, not crisis… 

Second, he couldn’t bring himself to attempt to answer 8 x 9 whilst re-launching yet another statutory assessment into our primary schools - a national times tables test for 9 year olds, a test that will require young children to answer this question under timed conditions - maybe he’s still smarting from that time he got his grammar mixed up on World at One...

We’ve known about the times table test for a while - if you remember, Nicky Morgan announced concrete plans for it in the Christmas holidays a couple of years ago. We’ve also known it’s a terrible idea for a while. 

"If we genuinely believed that this assessment would help children become confident mathematicians and support teaching and learning then we would not oppose it"

So we’re completely clear, learning the times tables is an important part of the primary school curriculum. This is why it is already part of the National Curriculum. Also, I have never met an education professional who doesn’t agree that learning the times tables is important, or that assessment is a vital part of learning. At the National Education Union we are not anti-tables or anti-testing. If we genuinely believed that this assessment would help children become confident mathematicians and support teaching and learning then we would not oppose it. 

Here are some of the problems:

  • Schools already teach children the times tables - and the introduction of this test may pull teachers away from spending time on the full mathematics curriculum. Yes times tables are important - but so too are other aspects of the curriculum. 
  • There are lots of free high quality test materials available already for teachers (and parents) to use to check how children are getting on with their times tables.
  • If there is an issue with how well schools are teaching the times tables (and I’m yet to see any hard evidence that this is a problem) then investing in CPD would have more impact than a statutory test.
  • Developing and running statutory assessments is a really expensive activity - you have to design the test, trial the test, pilot the test, run the test, provide support to schools and collect the data etc, and this is especially true for this particular assessment as it is the first whole cohort online test, surely this money could be better spent? Will the DfE confirm the full cost of this policy? Schools have been testing times tables FOR FREE for years!
  • There are significant workload implications for staff. Someone has to create the pupil logins, familiarise the pupils with the process, create an assessment timetable, apply for access arrangements, set up the test space, check the equipment works, invigilate the assessment etc. Will the DfE publish a workload assessment following the trial this year? 

This assessment adds to the belief held by some education professionals that Ministers, Nick Gibb in particular, don’t trust schools to get on with their jobs. Maybe Nick Gibb needs to focus on addressing the huge issues in his ministerial brief of school funding and teacher supply - to support schools to deliver the curriculum? 

Despite what Ministers claim, this test is an accountability measure and could have negative consequences for pedagogy and on children’s experiences in year 4. The ability grouping research we recently commissioned demonstrated the huge impact the “light touch” Phonics Screening Check has had on many schools - it is either naive or disingenuous to pretend that the same risks don’t apply to this assessment. 

The primary years are crammed with statutory assessments - we need less not more! 

We don’t need this assessment. It’s a waste of time and money. It should be scrapped."

Blog
16 February 2018