John Bald, an independent education consultant and blogger, says numeracy should be separated from abstract maths
There used to be advice given to MPs – it may have been from MacMillan – that they should aim to make one good point in a speech as a backbencher, perhaps two as a minister. Non-governmental task forces are firmly in the backbench camp here, and Carol Vorderman’s report delivers, with her excellent idea of separating the numeracy that is needed for life and work from the more abstract pure maths that are
needed for other purposes.
The same needs to happen with English. As I’ve described in previous postings, English has been dominated by leftists from the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) to the extent that their views run right through the national curriculum, from pre-school to A level.
A police sergeant whose son I’ve been helping, and who was having trouble with interpreting the multi-cultural poetry anthology he’d been given – he could not get above a D, for failing to spot the right cultural nuances – asked me a simple question. “Why has the language exam been turned into another literature exam?” The answer is that the leftists see language as being taught through literature, and formal English as an imposition by the middle class on the rest of the population – if you can read and write formal English, you are ipso facto middle class. Circular, but never mind. We urgently need the equivalent of Ms Voderman’s maths distinction in English, and will only get it if ministers insist on it – the civil service and examiners have built their careers on the status quo, and will protect it.
Alas, apart from her good idea, Ms Vorderman’s report has been suborned by co-writers, one of them an ex GCSE examiner, who waste valuable space and paper in promoting “modern” methods in primary schools – I can’t find any clear description of how primary children are expected to progress, let alone any mention of multiplication tables. Imperfect though the maths test surely is – it gives too little credit for accurate calculation – it is the only one out of all three original SATs that was honestly set and marked, and in which questions meant what they said. Let’s remember that the lefties have already ditched the science SAT, so that less science is now taught. Michael Gove was right to thank the team, and right to take on the big idea. The rest of the report will be considered, I hope critically, by the curriculum review team.
Which brings me to how the gap might be filled, and how governors might help. I regularly teach children of ten and upwards their two times table, simply because no one else has done so. What schools usually do instead is teach children to count in multiples or jumps – 2,4, 6,8 etc. They see this as the same thing, but it isn’t. In order to multiply and divide, you need to be able to pick out the item from the table you need, without having to start from scratch each time. You also need to be able to add up and subtract quickly, which means knowing positive and negative combinations of single digit numbers without resorting to your fingers and thumbs. Modern maths methods ignore both of these, so that children can’t calculate. As they can’t calculate, they can’t do anything else that involves calculation, and the maths syllabus and mark schemes for GCSE have been dumbed down to accommodate this. Most of the expanded methods of calculation are also designed to compensate for a lack of accurate calculation using single digit numbers.
Governors should check that children know their tables, and not accept the lip service ("We know this is important, but it’s not the whole story..", etc etc) that they are likely to get in response. They should ask children questions, and see if the children can answer them. Modern methods in primary maths have taken attention from these essentials, and successful schools have either never taken any notice, or have discarded them. Ms Vorderman’s report would have been even better if she had gone beyond talking to children and actually started to teach them. If she had done so, she would soon have found out what they do and don’t know, and why, and what we need to do about it.