The government has announced plans to have eight- and nine-year-olds sit mandatory times table tests and teaching unions have spoken out in opposition to the decision.
Year 4 pupils across England will have to complete what the Department for Education refers to as a five minute “on-screen check”, which is designed to help ensure they know the multiplication tables up to 12 off by heart.
“The multiplication tables check will help teachers identify those pupils who require extra support,” schools standards minister Nick Gibb said today [Wednesday 14 February].
“This will ensure that all pupils leave primary school knowing their times tables by heart and able to start secondary school with a secure grasp of fundamental arithmetic as a foundation for mathematics.”
However, despite the DfE assurances that the test “has been carefully designed to avoid causing additional stress for children and teachers”, three unions representing teachers and education staff – the National Education Union (NEU), NAHT and Voice – have said the test “won’t tell teachers anything they don’t already know” and will put extra pressure on children.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of NEU, said that while learning times tables is important, it is already part of the curriculum, so the compulsory checks are unwarranted.
“The National Education Union is opposed to the introduction of this unnecessary and expensive test,” she said. “The test will tell teachers nothing they don’t already know, will disrupt teaching and simply reflects a ministerial obsession with testing children.
“Ministers should support schools working hard to help our children learn by adequately funding schools and ensuring that every school has the teachers it needs.”
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of NAHT agreed that the checks are not helpful.
“A pupil’s primary school years are already cluttered with tests and checks. We want all children to succeed at school, but the answer isn’t to test them more,” he said.
“We’re working constructively with the government on primary assessment generally so it’s hugely disappointing that they are still intent on the introduction of a multiplication tables test, which NAHT opposes. This test won’t tell teachers and parents anything they don’t already know about their children.”
The Department for Education states that the multiplication tables check has been developed in active partnership with schools, with two trials already completed.
Results from the check will not be published at school-level, and will not be used by Ofsted and others to force changes in schools.
They settled on Year 4 as a prime time for the check following a primary assessment consultation run by the government last year, during which they state the majority of the sector said that Year 4 would be the best point to run a check on progress being made.
Deborah Lawson, general secretary of Voice agreed that Year 4 was “probably the least disruptive” time to run the checks, as it allows schools the opportunity to support pupils’ improvement before the Key Stage 2 SATs at the end of Year 6.
However, she added that Voice would prefer not to see the check administered at all. “This is an unnecessary burden on schools and will increase stress for staff and children alike,” she explained. “Teachers and school staff already know which children perform well in mathematics and this proposed check only measures one particular element of maths – the equivalent of a speed ‘full stop’ test in English.
“Some members feel that it is a pointless and ridiculous throwback to a different time and different world. Since everyone can use a calculator now, this shouldn’t be viewed as inferior to mental skills in this day and age.”
A national sample of schools will soon receive their invitation to participate in a trial, which aims to ensure the check is robust, accessible and minimises any additional burden on schools.
This trial comes ahead of the national voluntary roll out of the multiplication tables check for all Year 4 pupils from June 2019, before it becomes mandatory in June 2020.
Gibb said: “Academic standards are rising in our schools thanks to our reforms and the hard work of teachers, with 1.9 million more pupils in schools rated good or outstanding than in 2010. It is important to have an assessment system that continues to drive this improvement.”
Some teachers have voiced their support of the plans. Chris Wilkins, executive headteacher at the St Ninian Catholic Federation, Carlisle, said: “As a federation of schools we are really positive about the implementation of the times table checks. They will help schools ensure children leave school confident in these fundamental facts and will be a really useful benchmark for schools to rate their success. Hopefully we will be part of the trials of the checks so we can measure the success of our current strategies.”
Amanda Griffiths, headteacher of Manor Farm and Witham St Hughs Academy added: “In preparation for the the ‘National Multiplication Tables Check’, we have focussed upon the fluency and rapid recall of multiplication facts in each year group across the Academy. As a result of this approach, we have noticed a positive impact upon pupil confidence and outcomes in many other areas of the mathematics curriculum. We believe that once these fundamental building blocks are in place, barriers to other aspects of the mathematics curriculum are minimised.”