In my previous blog post I wrote about the pressure that 10YO is facing in her SATS year at school. The more I think about the wider context, I can understand how this comes about in Year 6. I’ve written elsewhere about the teacher-bashing in our right wing media. Education Minister Nicky Morgan is not averse to putting the boot into the profession as well. Earlier this month she announced that under new Conservative plans, “all pupils will have to know their 12 times table by the time they leave primary school”. Which of course sounds perfectly reasonable on the surface, and begs the obvious question ‘why on earth aren’t those dreadful teachers teaching the times tables already?’, playing to the gallery of those on the political right who love to criticise the teaching profession.
The point I’d like to raise in response, seeing as I haven’t heard anyone in the mainstream media challenging the government’s view on this (Andrew Marr certainly didn’t bother in the clip linked to above), is that teachers are already teaching times tables and so much more. If you really think that children aren’t learning enough maths at primary school, I suggest you have a read through the National Curriculum for primary schools on the government’s own website. According to this, children need to have mastered their times tables up to 12 by the end of Year 4, which is two whole years before the end of primary school. Skip through to page 39 onwards to see just how much kids are expected to achieve by the end of primary school. And this curriculum isn’t just an aspirational target, it is implemented on a daily basis in state schools up and down the country and children are assessed on it. The government’s own findings show that in 2014 86% of children achieved the expected level – which, let me reiterate, is considerably more advanced than knowing your times tables.
I can’t imagine that Nicky Morgan is unaware of what is actually required by the National Curriculum, or what the latest achievement levels are. So what is she playing at by announcing such meaningless targets? They do little except create an impression that teachers aren’t doing their jobs, and probably put them under even more pressure, which then gets passed on to pupils. She’s already got form for using statistics in a misleading way, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this latest announcement.
No doubt Nicky Morgan would say that 86% of children meeting the expected targets implies that 14% of children don’t, and that this is cause for concern… but really? If I had to hazard a guess what percentage of children have learning difficulties, developmental delays, physical health problems which have caused them to miss school, emotional difficulties due to bereavement or divorce or any other family problems, or who just happen to have a stinking bad cold during SATS week and can’t concentrate on the test, I reckon 14% would be a reasonable amount. And just because they don’t reach the required level on a given week in Year 6, that doesn’t mean they won’t get there sometime during Year 7 or Year 8. Like I said, little human beings, not units of production.
It seems to me that the more the government puts pressure on teachers to achieve the impossible – and I’m sorry Nicky Morgan, it is impossible for 100% of children to be at exactly the same developmental level at exactly the same time – then the result is going to be more teachers feeling that they have to ‘teach to the test’ in Year 6, rather than basing their lesson plans on what children actually need. Which in turn will lead to more children like my 10YO crying over their maths homework every night. Admittedly, there are worse things in life, and knuckling down to your homework is character building, got that. And if it was her GCSE coursework, I wouldn’t be complaining about the system, I’d be encouraging her to get down to it. But she’s 10, not 16. And SATS results are completely irrelevant to her future prospects. Which is why I think this latest ‘announcement’ of a new target that’s not really a new target at all, is just another sign that something is going badly wrong in the relationship between the government and this country’s schools.