The times tables they are a changin…

LATE to my laptop this morning. Blame a bad night. My sleep has been rumpled for years. I have tried many approaches to little effect. Perhaps instead of counting sheep I should try doing my times tables.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan wants every child to know their times tables by the time they leave primary school. Before considering whether or not this is a good idea, let’s analyse what is being said.

Pupils will be tested against the clock on their tables up to 12×12 in a new computer-based exam. According to the Department of Education this is all part of the government’s “war on innumeracy and illiteracy”.

Well that’s a poor start. As sure as three times three equals nine (I do hope that’s right), it’s depressing when governments start declaring war on things. Isn’t that a combative and negative way to approach children in primary school? Far better to say something positive such as “we want our children to be at peace with numbers”.

Peace not war and all that.

Next here is a quote from Ms Morgan. Before reading it please remember she is leading the battle against innumeracy and illiteracy – “Maths is a non-negotiable of a good education.”

Sorry, maths is a what of a what? I think Ms Morgan has misused an adjective – a clanging, dull adjective at that – as a noun. And anyway what a terrible sentence from a woman who wishes to nag our children about literacy.

This might seem a small thing, but it isn’t. Politicians who wish to impose new measures on our children should be able to express themselves properly.

When she first announced these plans last February, Ms Morgan was asked on Good Morning Britain what the answer to 7×8 was. She dodged the challenge, saying: “I’m not going to be answering any maths questions. I know what it’s like with these interviews.”

Perhaps put-upon primary school children should subvert her answer to their own purposes: “I’m not going to be answering any maths questions. I know what it’s like with these tests.”

There is nothing wrong with knowing your times tables, but ministers who bang on about these things do so for political purposes. They know it plays well, summoning up a stern nostalgia for how life used to be.

But is it really productive to impose such tests on our children? In a rush to prove their old-school academic virility, education secretaries such as Ms Morgan seem to forget the creative side of their brief. Is it any better to drill numbers into a child’s head than it is to unleash their creativity, to make them sensitive to the needs of others, to make them happy, engaged people?

And once again a government is interfering in schools. We already have nationally administered tests for seven-year-olds, a national curriculum designed by politicians – and tinkered with at will; and government inspectors who strike fear into the hearts of head teachers.

In this rush to quantify and control everything about our young children’s school day, there is a risk the joy and spark of education could be extinguished.


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