When the government announced its intention to develop a test to encourage schools in England to focus on ensuring children learn their times tables, few people complained because it is clearly the case that children benefit from knowing these results. Support for such a test was based on the assumption that any statutory assessment that was introduced would be carefully developed to ensure it was fit for purpose.
There should have been:
- a genuine process of consultation about the form this test should take
- careful assessment of the impact of the agreed way forward resulting in plans to mitigate any likely negative consequences of this test
- careful analysis of the experiences of schools involved in pilot tests, resulting in further modification if necessary
- normal parliamentary processes for a new statutory assessment
Instead, we have ended up with a test which was developed by one former minister, Nick Gibb, who was well known for putting his hands over his ears when people talk about evidence1 and who believes that people involved in education should not be involved in deciding what they teach or how they teach it2. This is like having a minister for health, who has no medical experience and does not engage with evidence, deciding precisely what medical procedures doctors should carry out, with there being no scrutiny of the likely serious consequences of their decisions.
Nick Gibb’s Specification for the Multiplication Table Check3 details how this test has been deliberately constructed to ensure children who sense check just one of their answers will fail it. Section 4 of this specification explains how a six second guillotine has been applied to every question to ensure that only automatically recalled results (which are not sense checked by the child) score marks. Section 5.5 of the specification states that a child who fails to answer just one of the 25 questions correctly within six seconds fails the test. The footnote on page 8 of the specification details how the resources for analysing the impact of their test were diverted into ensuring that only the automatic recall of multiplication tables would be assessed.
Fluency and automaticity are different things. Someone who is fluent with their multiplication tables will automatically and confidently recall some results, but will still choose to check some results using appropriate mental strategies. For example, it is generally considered wise and appropriate that a child fluently calculates a result like 7 x 12 by adding 70 and 14 rather than by automatically recalling that this result is 84. While fluency with multiplication tables is an appropriate target for most children at the age of 9 or 10, the decision to assess for automaticity instead of fluency is extremely worrying, particularly as many of the children taking the test will only be 8 years old.
Forcing schools to try to teach children to achieve automaticity with their multiplication tables results at the age of 8 is likely to have a negative impact on the way many schools teach mathematics.
Substantial concerns have also been raised about the levels of stress children will experience as a consequence of this particular version of this test. More Than a Score have produced this excellent video which conveys the thoughts and experiences of children facing this assessment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKqtubxF9p0.
Many people have been waiting for the point at which this new exam was to be debated in parliament to raise concerns about it, however it has now emerged that a process designed for minor amendments to existing legislation has been used to make this exam compulsory for all year 4 children from the summer of 2022 without parliamentary scrutiny.
Following this discovery, I immediately started a government petition which asks our government to delay the implementation of the multiplication tables check until it has been consulted. I would be tremendously grateful if you could sign it and encourage people you know to sign it too. This petition is available here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/608037
The response to the petition from teachers I have contacted so far has been tremendous so I have now set up a Just Giving page to raise funds to help to make more know it exists: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/rebecca-hanson-1. If you can even just the price of a cup of coffee, please do donate. I also intend to attend key education conferences to further raise awareness about it.
Rebecca Hanson MA(Cantab) PGCE MEd FCCT
- Faith and Experience in Education, Edited by Don Rowe and Anne Watson. UCL IOE Press (p153)
- January 2022 comments by Nick Gibb made in the Telegraph and reported by Sir Tim Brighouse in this interview (in his comments starting at 13 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPx3P0FtU9A
- The specification for the Multiplication Tables Check: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/755745/2018_MTC_assessment_framework_PDFA.pdf
- The government’s Information for Parents document: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1031901/2022_Information_for_parents_Multiplication_tables_check.pdf