Multiplication Tables Check: A Balanced Argument by @Mroberts90Matt

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So it was Valentines Day yesterday, and the DfE celebrated this in the only way they could: let’s announce updates on the Multiplication Tables Check and teacher assessment frameworks for this year and beyond. We love you primary teachers everywhere! What happened next was, what could only be described as a cacophony of opinions, debates and discussions (amongst other things) about this issues amongst primary teachers, secondary teachers, school leaders, education consultants, parents, mathematicians and poets (thank you Michael Rosen)!

The first thing that came to my mind was this: haven’t we known about this since at least September 2017? Certainly a times tables check of some form has been bandied about since 2014 when I started teaching and maybe before as my Maths Coordinator at the time, when we were talking Maths-y stuff, mentioned it was in discussion. Of course, three recent changes in Education Secretary, two General Elections and one whopper or a Brexit vote in around 3 years have set a bit of a stall in the coming forth of this initiative I think. Not to mention this coming alongside the implementation of a new Curriculum, bringing with it #SATsShambles, a leakage of a KS1 Paper and the ineffective, defunct form of a writing assessment which does not allow an accurate picture of children’s writing nationally. A Multiplication Tables Check hasn’t really been top of the list of priorities…but it seems the finer details may have been finalised – hence the update yesterday. But this is what surprised me – yesterday was just that, and UPDATE. So why were so many teachers and school leaders shocked, surprised (and some offended) by this announcement? My school’s staff certainly have known about this incoming assessment since September at least. Anyway, whatever the reason, that was the state of Edu-Twitter yesterday – almost every single tweet I saw being about the MTC.

As I sat back and trawled through the torrent of view and opinions, almost like a war of words, I couldn’t help making a few points and insights myself. The reality was, and still is, I’m very mixed on this news. There are clear arguments for and against this update. And this is what you are reading now (if you’ve made it this far in my ramblings). Read on for an unbiased view at the arguments either side of this debate. As I like playing  Devil’s Advocate, I will make a point against each of them.

For the Multiplication Tables Check

1. This will improve children’s knowledge of times tables

Before you call out ‘this is probably the worst reason for the MTC’ I am very aware of this. I’m just using Nick Gibb’s argument at the beginning of this. And yes, the counter-argument is that if high-stakes testing is the answer to improve knowledge and skills, then why don’t we do more? Let’s bring back the Science SATs tests because this will ‘improve Science knowledge and skills’ or maybe a PE Check because we know a 2nd session of the subject (which has been recommended) is often lost in a packed curriculum so a PE Check will ensure it is done.

All educators know that a one-time, high-stakes test does not improve outcomes. It is the quality teaching and support that does this.

2. This will bring times tables up as a priority – only a good thing

I’ve read this phrase ‘only a good thing’ a lot over the past 36 hours. If the Brexiteers’ slogan became ‘£350 million for the NHS’ – this phrase ‘can only be a good thing’ would be slapped onto the pro-MTC bus. I am a Year 6 teacher. I spend agonising hours over children who reach me in Year 6 and do not know their times tables. The argument here is that if there is a MTC on this skill, then teachers in lower years will be encouraged to make quality teaching of this skill a priority. No one is saying they aren’t doing their job – they just need more of a focus on this basic skill right?

Unfortunately there are two issues with this argument for me. The first is that to say this is actually insinuating that Year 2-4 are not doing their job properly. If I were to be given a ‘check’ in a monitoring situation, say a book look, in challenging the more able – I have been given this ‘priority’ because I need to improve that aspect of my teaching. Now of course, as a teaching profession we should be open to suggestions and guidance on what we can improve on, but sticking a formal assessment in to me is counter-productive. What I would prefer is guidance from my school leader on how to improve my ability to challenge the more able, not that I will now have it as a priority and face a high-stakes assessment on it in a year or so. The second issue is that every school I’ve walked into already make teaching and practising times tables a priority. Does your school not place importance on this vital Maths skill? If not and it will take a high-stakes assessment to make your school do so then that is concerning…

3. Having a MTC will identify which children need more support

As a classroom teacher in primary, we are immersed in knowing, planning for, teaching and assessing our children 90% of our school’s opening hours. Are some people really insinuating that a cold, online-based assessment of their times tables knowledge will tell me which children need support on their tables more than my daily classroom practice?

The one of the biggest responses to this was that ‘I don’t know what this MTC will tell me that I don’t already know.’ As soon as this is voiced by numerous teachers, you have to question what is the purpose of the assessment? Is it to support children’s learning or hold schools to account with data? If it is not the former, should our precious funding and resources go towards this or some other initiative that will actually be required and enhance children’s education, rather than inform teachers on which children need for support on times tables knowledge (something which they already know).

4. If schools are not ensuring children know their times tables, this will make sure they do

This is similar to point 2 but has a much more sinister tone about it. We will make sure you as a school create tables-knowing children or else we’ll have the evidence to prove you don’t. This moves from simply knowing which children need support on tables and turns it into ‘What are you doing extra about it?’

There are many Year 3-4 practitioners I know (a brilliant bunch in my school) who do an excellent job trying to develop children’s times tables. Implementing a Tables Check to me, if I were in their position, would be a signal from the DfE that I am not doing my job well enough when I am already stretched and doing everything I can in my job. I know, with inevitable pressure from school leaders because they will have pressure from higher up, that I will be followed up on and pushed to try harder. The answer to ‘How do we solve the teaching shortage crisis?’ is not ‘Well, one thing we do will make very well sure the kids they teach are being taught their times tables properly’. I am concerned this decision will lead to the loss of more teachers. It certainly doesn’t go about making teaching a more attractive profession to enter…

Against the Multiplication Tables Check

1. This will place pressure on the children at only 8-9 years old

Let’s be frank here. It is a 5 minute, online times table test. Is your school implementing some form of times tables test/challenge/game/competition/extravaganza/parade/(…I could go on) on at least a weekly basis? As a Maths Coordinator I know I would want my school to be. We do in fact – Times Tables Rock Stars is our vehicle which is great fun. However, this means in my Year 6 class we are doing a total of 9 minutes of times table each week! That’s almost double of what’s being suggested in this MTC! Goodness me – our children begin using TT Rock Stars towards the last term of Year 2! If we give them the minimum of 9 minutes of times tables challenges a week from Summer Term of Year 3, by the end of Year 4 they will have engaged in…approximately 756 minutes of times tables challenges (let’s be honest, a glorified practice test) over the 7 terms between Summer Year 2 and End of Year 4. Over 12 hours of tables challenges in just over two years of school – aren’t Times Tables Rock Stars and I monsters??

As soon as we receive guidance on how to administer these tests I’m looking for the statement that it must be done in silence. If not, I know I’m going to seriously consider sticking on ‘Living on a Prayer’ in the background and tell them to rock this TTRS challenge which just looks different on the computer screen! Pressure, come on! As a general rule tests are pressured, but the nature of this MTC means it actually will not deviate from most classroom practice at all, unlike most other assessment in the suite of lovely tests we have before us. And I think that is what most are failing to look past if they use this argument.

2. Children are over-tested as it is

As true as this is, I think again we are looking at a small mote in the beam that is crushing us. We, as a general profession, tend to hear the news the government are enforcing their control of the teaching profession and immediately groan as we are used to doing – and with good reason. As @MichaelT1979 pointed out later in the day, we are all so focused over a Tables Check that really will only take 5 minutes on a computer and how this damages children in the long run, when they also announced – on the same day ‘coincidentally’ – that the writing framework as we have it, will continue for the foreseeable future. There are much bigger issues in how we assess children currently than this 5 minute MTC which can easily replace one of the times tables games that children should be engaging in on a daily basis anyway.

It could be argued ‘Fair enough, but why add another assessment when children are over-assessed anyway?’ The truth is I don’t think, if it’s done the right way, children will see this in the same way as the KS2 SATs or the KS1 SATs. The challenge will be for schools not to turn this into a hoop-jumping exercise but rather a culmination in times tables learning. This is the best way to implement a check and identification of children who need times tables support. Why have they done it like this? I think in a big way it was the fact they took consultation from over 1,000 educators on how and in what school year it should be implemented. Fortunately they listened. Let’s hope they listen further to the educational professionals.

3. Don’t we already have times tables tested – in the KS2 Maths?

Again, very true. Elements of times tables knowledge and application are indeed assessed two years later in the end of KS2 assessments. However, every Year 6 teacher knows that if children arrive at this assessment with a targeted focus on knowing their times tables then this will only be a benefit. The fact is that the children will never have a question like ‘6×6=__’ in the KS2 SATs (except for maybe one in the Arithmetic Test). They are more likely to encounter something like ’60×6=___’ or ‘__x60=3600’ along with the multitude of problems they will need to solve which within them will require a quick recall of tables in order to solve effectively.

Children are not, in the current framework, given an opportunity to clearly demonstrate their basic times tables knowledge so that it can be followed up on. Yes, again the argument cries ‘But I know this already about my class’ to which my answer may be ‘…so what’s the problem?’ The root of the issue is not that this MTC will not tell us what we already know. There are bigger issues at play…

4. Teachers pressure is already at boiling point – won’t this increase the pressure?

The DfE have again taken note of over 1,000 teachers views which (should) mean this will not be an issue. They have been very clear that individual school’s results will not be published. This will avoid a MLT (Multiplication League Table – if there were I’m sure that acronym would catch on!). Although, to be fair, not to have data published which they can’t use in some tracking form, Local Authority data will be published.

I suppose the argument against this concern is that, in the way it’s been proposed, any concerns about chasing up individual schools, therefore having that data used by Ofsted for judgements or by school leaders for PRP, should not be a concern. Of course, no external data should be used for PRP but I have heard the horror stories of Y6 teachers needing to have a certain % reach ARE% or they have not met their Performance Management targets…this issue is not caused by the assessments but in the way leaders manage pressure on staff. Nick Gibb has also tried to reassure schools in saying the data “will not be used by Ofsted and others to force changes in schools.” The MTC itself will not cause more pressure on school staff. In order to ensure potential pressure isn’t then projected by school leaders, the DfE will need to manage  the situation carefully to ensure this is not felt as if leaders have to push results up…something which unfortunately hasn’t worked well thus far.

My Verdict

I do not see the MTC as an issue. I recognise it may make tables learning more of a priority and it may well encourage more teachers to think more carefully about how effectively they are teaching and enabling practice of times tables. I think it will have an impact on children’s times tables knowledge.

I do have an issue with the fact that this has been implemented at this stage when are much bigger issues at play in education. I would LOVE to know how much this MTC is costing the DfE. I imagine the number goes into the millions but that is a very uneducated, uninformed figure. If this is the case why not either provide some sort of times tables programme which all schools can use consistently to practice times tables effectively and has regular ‘checks’ which schools can analyse and work on? If we are serious about improving times tables knowledge (and it MUST improve) then provide support and enhance the teaching, don’t just coldly assess and expect an already struggling profession to pick up the workload without help. Someone actually suggested doing a bumper deal with TTRS – not a bad idea that 😉

I do not think the MTC will cause stress to children. The schools will if they implement it poorly. That’s their problem.

I do have an issue with the MTC if it becomes ‘a stick to beat schools with’ (another phrase I’ve heard a lot in the past 36 hours)! We have been given assurances Ofsted will not use it. If they try to I have the article from Nick Gibb himself saying they won’t (see here). However, the way it has been set up and announced, schools shouldn’t have to worry about this.

As such, I’m up for it in principle. I just wish they’d made better use of the funding to be more supportive, or even tackled the bigger issues at play such as the fact we are having a teacher shortage crisis and nothing has been done about that (oh, except make a QTS Entrance Test more accessible…yeah…)…

photo credit: Canadian Pacific <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/18378305@N00/8264974115″>Do Your Math!</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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