Times-tables tests: What do schools need to know?

The government is keen to reassure heads that its new times-tables test won’t become just another stick to beat schools with, but heads aren’t convinced, explains Freddie Whittaker.

It’s official. Nick Gibb has spoken: times-tables tests are here. From next month, almost 300 schools will take part in a trial of the government’s new on-screen multiplication tables check for eight- and nine-year-olds, before it is rolled out nationally over the next two years.

Other than details of the trial, this morning’s announcement doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, which, ironically, is what one headteacher’s union said about the controversial tests themselves.

However, despite the protestations of school leaders, it would appear the tests are here to stay, and schools need to prepare for what happens next.

Here are the main points schools need to know…

1. The tests will happen in year 4, not year 6

Proposals for times-tables tests were first announced by Nick Gibb in 2015, and subsequently confirmed in the Conservatives’ general election manifesto later that year.

At that time, ministers said they wanted the tests to be sat by pupils at the end of year 6. The rationale was that tests at the end of primary school would allow the government to check how many pupils reached the goal of knowing their times-tables up to 12 by the time they leave primary school. The downside? It would have lumped yet another test on schools and pupils at the end of key stage 2.

Despite schools’ concerns and delays to the implementation of the tests, the plan to set the tests in year 6 even made it as far as the government’s consultation last year, but was scrapped in September, when Greening announced they would be moved forward to year 4.

The change was made because the year 4 plan emerged as the preferred option among those who responded to the government’s consultation. Testing pupils at the beginning of key stage 2, rather than at the end, is seen as less burdensome, and the government also claims it will allow teachers to identify which pupils need extra support to reach their end-of-primary target.

2. Schools don’t have to set the tests until 2020

Unless you’re one of the roughly 290 primary schools that have agreed to take part in the government’s pilot (but which have not been named), you won’t have to get your pupils to sit the test for a while.

Assuming all goes well with this year’s trial, the government expects to make the test available nationwide on a voluntary basis from 2018-19, which means schools will have the option to have their year 4s sit it next summer.

However, it won’t become compulsory for schools until 2019-20, when all pupils will be expected to sit the test at the end of year 4, in June 2020. That’s the key date for schools.

3. The on-screen test will take five minutes

One of the biggest concerns among school leaders when a new test is proposed is always the time and resources it’s going to take up. The need for extra staff and extra space often creates additional costs and hassle for schools.

In this instance, the government hopes to reassure headteachers and other leaders that the online times-tables test will not prove to be a burden.

According to ministers, the new on-screen check “will last no longer than five minutes” and “is similar to the checks many schools use already”.

The test will enable teachers to monitor a child’s progress “in a consistent and reliable way”, but has apparently been “carefully designed to avoid causing additional stress for children and teachers”.

4. School-level results won’t be published, but heads are still alarmed

Another big fear about new tests is that they will become another stick to beat schools with.

The government will collect data from the tests, but insists school-level results will not be published. According to last year’s consultation response, results will be published at local authority and national level.

Importantly, ministers have been at pains to point out that data from the tests will not be used to trigger inspections by Ofsted or intervention from regional schools commissioners.

Instead, RSCs, school governors and other “relevant parties” will be told that the data “should be used only as a starting point for a discussion on how best to help and support schools to raise standards in numeracy”.

However, some heads remain unconvinced. Nick Brook from the NAHT warned today that although the data may not trigger Ofsted inspections, it will still be subject to scrutiny from inspectors when they visit for other reasons, making the tests “even more significant”.

5. Contact the STA to find out more

The government is inviting schools that want to know more about the times tables test to contact the Standards and Testing Agency.

Those interested in being involved in “further user research” are also being urged to get in touch.

Freddie Whittaker is Schools Week’s chief reporter and political editor

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