Yet again, education is being used as a political football by those with varying understanding of it

The past few days have seen more political pronouncements about education, some of them with varying justification.

Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, announced at the weekend that pupils would, by the time they left primary school at the age of 11 would have to know their time tables to 12×12,  perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel. This plan also includes children writing a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar.

Times tables chart

If all children in Year 6 (the final year of primary) failed to reach this target, punitive measures such as replacing the headteacher or forcing the school to become an academy would be put in place.

There’s quite a bit to unpick here (and excuse me while I pick up my ‘former teacher hat’ to do so).

Firstly, times tables. Now, I have no problems with memorising times tables. In fact, speedy recall of them is very useful – I can remember being drilled in them by my parents and still have excellent recall. Something, incidentally, which can’t necessarily be said for Ms Morgan herself, who refused to answer questions on times tables, including 7×8, on ITV’s ‘Good Morning Britain’.

One of my problems with this is why the insistence on learning the 11 and 12 times tables. In an era when 12 pence made a shilling and 12 inches made a foot, the 12 times table made perfect sense to learn. But in a decimal era, learning up to 10×10 is more than adequate.

The other problem, of course – and this relates to all the areas to be tested – is how every child in a year group can automatically be expected to reach these targets. A Bell curve (as illustrated below) shows, with some variation, that while the majority of children in a group will be of average ability (and I’m not aware of academic research which lays out what ‘average’ 11 year olds should be able to achieve in Maths and English), there will always be a group of above and below average pupils.

Bell curve of ability

From my own teaching experience, I know how hard it can be get those pupils in the lower end of ability, especially for those with Special Education Needs, to reach arbitrary ‘average’ targets. This is without any discussion of whether such targets should be set as what average pupils can achieve or whether they should be, in some way, more challenging.

Returning to Ms Morgan’s announcement, I am also baffled by an emphasis (which I’ve heard many times before) on ‘long division and complex multiplication’. I’m not sure whether ‘complex multiplication’ means multiplying by a number bigger than 10 or by decimals or what.

Long division and long/complex multiplication are difficult, and to be frank, not actually of much use to people. A good solid understanding of multiplying and dividing by a single digit number is a very good grounding to have, but anything more complex will, in real life, be done on a calculator or spreadsheet.

I also wonder just how accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar will be expected to be. Perfect? I doubt there are many people who get it all perfect on the first go (there’s a reason I proofread blog entries!), especially given writing a short story from scratch in a test has always been something of a challenging and unfair expectation of 11 year olds (or of any adult when it comes down to it). It may be slightly churlish of me to comment that I noticed Ms Morgan say ‘the points’…’was’ at around the 0:58 point in the ITV video linked to above, which is, of course, grammatically incorrect.

And what of the sanctions?

Caning cartoon

I’ve long despaired of the use of league tables in education and the increasing idea that headteacher should be sacked if a school slips down the rankings. I’m not saying there aren’t headteachers who do need extra support in difficult schools, but let’s face it, the whole idea smacks of football managers (who generally are only dealing with players in or near the ‘high performers’ end of the Bell curve). How is this an appropriate model for education? And, if headteachers are sacked (up to 3,500 if the ITV report is to be believed), where exactly are the replacements going to come from in a hurry?

Being somewhat cynical, I noticed the mention of conversion to academy status with alarm. Academies are an arbitrary set-up for schools, introduced by Labour, increased in number by the Conservatives and primarily – it seems – to take schools away from local authority control. No-one has yet proved that this actually improves performance, as noted by the cross-parliamentary education select committee. Is this, I wonder, not just about standards, but actually another stick to beat schools with into converting?

In slightly different education news, Tristram Hunt (Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary) made some welcome announcements about tackling anti-gay bullying in schools but then blew some of his goodwill by this rather mean-spirited response on Twitter to someone asking for more detail of Labour’s education policy.

Labour's Tristram tells an enquirer on Twitter to 'Stop moaning'

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