‘Schools Week hasn’t done the maths on commas’

It isn’t unreasonable to expect an 11-year-old to use a comma as a thousands separator – this is a policy that has been made clear since the sample tests were published in July 2015

I am under no illusion that year 6 teachers have an extra challenge this year preparing for the new Key Stage 2 (KS2) tests. However, this challenge is only going to be increased when the education press publishes what I believe to be incomplete information about the timing and content of the changes.

According to Schools Week, the Department for Education only “announced” that commas will be used as thousands separators in KS2 mathematics tests in January. In truth, the use of commas in the tests was made clear when the sample tests were published in July 2015 where all large numbers included commas. This has given primary schools nearly a year of lead-in time to ensure their pupils are adequately prepared.

Our schools should prepare children for life in the Britain that exists, not what it has been advised to become

The communication sent to schools on January 13 was simply a clarification email from the Standards and Testing Agency (STA), prompted by a number of calls to its helpline, explaining how the incorrect use of commas would be marked.

It is by no means excessive to expect an 11-year-old to use a comma as a thousands separator. This practice is entirely commonplace across Britain – as the articles, corrections column, and job adverts in this own publication testify – so all pupils need to understand it. For the same reason, the year 5 mathematics curriculum mentions pints, a peculiarity of our cultural make-up that remains central to life in modern Britain.

One day, Britain may be aligned with the recommendation against commas that you quote from the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. But until that day comes, our schools should prepare children for life in the Britain that does exist, not what Britain has been advised to become.

In addition, last week’s issue of Schools Week reported that since January 5, the DfE has made almost 30 updates to the Assessment and Reporting Arrangements. It neglected to mention that 24 of those changes were to tidy formatting, and three were to clarify wording following feedback – hardly the stuff to prompt a full overhaul of a school’s year 6 schemes of work. Only one of the changes was substantive: an alteration designed to bring the document in line with guidance on teacher assessment that the STA published in December 2015.

The same article also questioned why more information has not been provided on scaled scores, and the expected standard of the new tests. Again, this was all explained on the
Gov.uk website in July last year. As the guidance states, the STA cannot give full information about what the scale will look like until pupils have taken the tests, and the tests have been marked.

Since the government response to the consultation on primary assessment and accountability was published in March 2014, we have been clear that the new expected standard will be broadly equivalent to the old level 4b. As all good teachers know, the best way to prepare pupils for tests is to teach the full class the full curriculum, to push every pupil to reach their full potential, rather than worrying about where an expected standard lies.

We introduced the new national curriculum for primary schools in September 2014 due to an urgent need to make sure all 11-year-olds master the basics. That – in the world’s fifth largest economy – around one fifth of our pupils are functionally illiterate or innumerate at the age of 15 is a national scandal that we are committed to remedying.

I am entirely aware that in the short term changes to the national curriculum and testing arrangements are disruptive for teachers, but in the long term we will have a far more sophisticated system for reporting assessment results that will allow for year-on-year consistency.

With such new arrangements on the horizon, we are working hard to make sure that guidance for schools is accurate and timely. It doesn’t help anyone, however, when there is misinformation about changes that imply additional confusion when in fact there is none.

Editor’s note: We did contact the DfE and the minister’s advisors to discuss the story before we wrote it. These issues were not raised with us at the time.

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  1. Mr Gibb is getting to sound a lot like Andrew Lansley when the public realised his brilliant health reforms were exactly how the professionals had stated, and nothing like the official rhetoric.

    Mr Gibb, thou doth protest too much. You need to listen more to teachers rather than your DfE officials. You have created chaos in our schools. The chaos is going to increase as the year progresses. A little more humility would be good. You need teachers to get you out of this mess. Telling us what “all good teachers know”, is not going to bring them on side.

    When David Cameron finds out what is happening at the chalkface, like he did eventually with Health, you won’t be able to blame it on the teachers (if there are any left that is).

  2. Dear Mr Gibb,

    You sound like the sort of man who regularly listens to teachers. Have you any idea of what is going on in classrooms as we frantically struggle to understand what is going on in the new National Curriculum? Commas for as thousands separators? Come on! That isn’t raising standards, it’s just being pedantic. Show me a consistent approach across the world with this and then I’ll accept that this is a vital, must do fact to hammer into the children’s heads. If teacher recruitment is going to be as poor as it looks like it’s going to be, do make sure that any teachers recruited from outside the UK are familiar with this pettyfoggery, and remind them not to cross their sevens too. Silly man.