The National Curriculum for mathematics was introduced nearly three decades ago. The intention was for it to raise attainment. How extraordinary, then, that Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, now feels it necessary to declare “war on innumeracy.” It seems that too many youngsters are leaving primary school without mastering their times tables – the most basic building block of arithmetic. Eleven-year-olds are to face formal online testing: including 6 x 4, 7 x 8, 8 x 12 and so on.
This initiative is very sensible, of course. Try doing multiplication and division sums without knowing your tables and without pressing the correct buttons on a calculator. Three cheers, then, for the Government’s recognition that the times tables really do matter. Three hoots of derision, however, from the Asia Pacific education superstar states for our having thought for so long that these building blocks of learning can be taught so late.
The latest version of the National Curriculum does expect pupils to know their tables by the age of nine rather than by the age of eleven under its predecessor. This is certainly a move in the right direction but needs to be seen in the context of most children in ‘high-flying’ Shanghai knowing their tables before they even start school at age 7.
In the 1950s – grim, grey and grimy as they mostly were – there was a widespread expectation that children should master their tables in the infants department, at an early age. This remains the case in the better independent schools. When I moved from a state school to a preparatory school I was easily able to teach multiplication and division to Year 3 pupils (7-8 year olds) because, more or less, they knew their tables. True, I needed to reinforce things, but such knowledge was soon firmly embedded. With these foundations in place real progress in maths was possible.
To regard tests on times tables for 11-year-olds as somehow too onerous and stress-inducing for pupils is a symptom of a very sick and undernourished system of teaching and learning. In educational terms, too many of our schools are on the equivalent of ‘life support’. They are simply unable to cope with even the lowest and most undemanding of expectations.
According to the OECD, we are the only country in the developed world in which grandparents outperform their grandchildren in terms of both numeracy and literacy. A major reason for this extraordinary betrayal of our young people is that, for years, we have been setting the academic bar too low.
Teachers genuinely fret about placing demands on children. Instead of making tests a regular part of day-to-day learning many are inclined to view with horror the whole notion of assessment. Consequently, the main externally marked national tests sat at age 11 cause panic in the staffroom and this panic is soon ‘picked up’ by pupils. Stress breeds stress!
We simply cannot go on in this manner. The way forward lies partly, at least, with teacher training and teaching methodology. Pupils would benefit greatly from more whole-class teaching. Not only is this less stressful for teachers than the so-called and largely bogus ‘child-centred’ learning with which teachers and Ofsted seem so obsessed, it is usually much more effective. It is a ‘win-win ‘ teaching method that helps explain why pupils taught in the best education systems of the Asia Pacific are up to three years ahead of pupils in the UK.