Editorial: Nicky Morgan needs to change the record on times tables check

Once upon a decade ago, I told my friend that if a DJ at a regular event we ran continued to play rubbish music I would be forced to take over myself. Only, I didn’t send the text to my friend. I sent it (accidentally) to the DJ. He flounced and I was left sheepishly learning how to turn-table.

Nicky Morgan is caught in the same situation. Hyperbolising to the right-wing press before the general election she promised that all children would be forced to learn their times-tables or schools would lose their heads – literally.

It wasn’t supposed to happen, of course. What was supposed to happen was a hung parliament. At which point stupid promises would be bartered for a more sensible compromise.

And then, the Conservatives won. You can almost imagine the panic when the advisers looked back at the manifesto and realised what they now had to deliver. Learning to spin records is one thing, learning to spin a mandatory online test for all 11-year-olds on one part of the national curriculum is quite another.

Yes, children should learn their multiplication tables. And they do. They are taught it by the end of year 4 – two years earlier than the planned tests.

But being taught doesn’t guarantee you’ll learn. And learning doesn’t mean you’ll use it. A friend’s father beat him so badly after he failed to learn his seven times-table that the number 49 still brings him out in cold sweats. Sure, he knows the number now, but he never willingly chose to do maths again. Was it worth it?

That’s extreme, but it makes a serious point. Adults have a knack of getting het up over the wrong things – and by pushing hard we can make things worse.

On reflection, I wish I’d just told my DJ friend to change his records. Let’s hope this year’s times-table pilot forces Nicky Morgan to change hers.

Morgan’s online times tables check leads way for more screen-based assessments

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  1. My father used to drill me in times tables and even though I knew them and still know them very well I found his overbearing manner intimidating – the fact that he timed me made me shut down mentally. He wasn’t that capable at them himself and was obviously trying to overcompensate; his aspirations for me are obvious now but he was an awful teacher. As a primary teacher I took a far more relaxed attitude with my own son and his gateway drugs into maths were reading The Number Devil, playing the Zoombinis computer program and many many other concrete to abstract activities that offered themselves as little serendipities in everyday life. However, my son, unlike myself, is very capable at maths and, in my time I’ve often come across people who are extremely capable at maths but haven’t memorised their tables. On the other hand I’ve come across far more people who struggle to ‘get’ their tables and once having got them struggle with every other aspect of maths. Most people lie inbetween that continuum I’d venture. There will always be a bell curve of proficiency and you may lift that curve up slightly by intensive drilling, singing, denes and ‘whatever’ blocks and equipment but there will still be a bell curve. Government using data to call schools to account and possibly penalise schools on this matter is a whole different ball game especially from a Secretary of State for Education who refuses to be answer simple questions in a high stress situation (i.e. TV or radio interview) in case she gets one wrong and that will be highlighted.