Why all these strictures about times tables just don't add up

Journal columnist and Newcastle headteacher Bernard Trafford finds a few gaping holes in the Government's education planning

Dr Bernard Trafford Headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Jesmond
Dr Bernard Trafford Headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Jesmond

I’m sorry if I bring my day job into this week’s column; generally I try to avoid discussing education. However, though this one starts with education, it’s really about politics, and the world we inhabit nowadays.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s getting tough. Taking over from the combative Michael Gove, she began in conciliatory mood. That angered Tory backwoodsmen, so now she’s showing some steel.

Last week she announced she’d excised from government performance tables all those “valueless” qualifications that she reckoned some schools had been using to boost their points performance. Among those rejected were several international GCSEs taken by such dodgy institutions as Eton and Westminster, who plummeted to the bottom of the league tables. Hmm.

Next came a powerful pronouncement: children must learn their times tables up to 12 before secondary school. If they can’t do those, read a novel and do proper spelling and grammar, they’ll… well, what will happen?

Ah, I know. The primary school will be placed in special measures, the head sacked, and the school will become an academy.

What if it’s already an academy? The Department for Education didn’t tackle that question. The maths doesn’t add up.

Don’t get me wrong. My privileged education was patchy in parts, but I learned my times tables at school, still use them in mental arithmetic, and think most children should do the same. But two things trouble me.

First, the Secretary of State for Education is no specialist. How does she know how things should be taught, and when? Professional teachers certainly know, but I’m not convinced the DFE is stuffed with them. As a school head I try not to boss subject specialists around, though I hope to engage them in professional discussion. But the way to achieve high standards is not to tell experts what to do when they know more than I do.

Secondly, what happens to children who can’t learn their 12 times table by the age of 11, or read a novel? No one ever seems to answer that. We’ll be back to the old complaint from the most disastrous Education Secretary of modern times, John Patten, in the early 1990s: he was furious that so many children were below average. His maths didn’t add up. Children who can’t learn those things by age 11 need extra support, but will they get it? Or do they just become a problem for the schools whose results they drag down? Bad for them, bad for the schools.

Another problem occurs. It’s not just politicians who claim the right to tell schools what to do. Latest up is Barclays boss Anthony Jenkins, outraged that schools are allowing children to leave unable to shake hands, look people in the eye and present themselves properly; in other words, to have any chance of getting a job.

I accept that schools have a part to play, as parents do too. But schools cannot solve all the problems of society: though they solve many, when not being bossed around and required to implement one politician’s bright idea after another.

Besides, as we continue to seek recovery from the global meltdown caused by wayward bankers (their maths certainly didn’t add up), some might feel members of that profession should keep their heads down a while longer instead of lecturing the rest of us.

Anthony Jenkins asserts that feckless, hopeless youngsters are leaving school and achieving nothing. How good, then, to see that myth thoroughly dispelled in the past week.

Following the disgusting mugging of disabled Gateshead pensioner Alan Barnes, 21-year-old beautician Katie Cutler used the internet (that thing kids waste all their time on) and crowd-funding website GoFundMe.com to get him some help.

Her modest target was £500. A week later the amount given by good-hearted well-wishers has passed £320,000. Now, there’s some maths that adds up!

Not bad for a young person: there’s hope for us yet!

Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.

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