Mark Lehain is the founder and principal of Bedford Free School.

On the surface, Wednesday’s update by Nick Gibb on the introduction of a national multiplication tables check (MTC) was no different to that for any other education policy: an announcement was made, the usual suspects accused it of being pointless/child abuse/evil (delete as applicable), the media covered for a day, and then everyone moved on.

However, while it might not seem like an earth-shattering move, it’s a good example of how policy development and implementation in education has improved in recent years. I also think it’s the sort of thing the Government should draw attention to, to highlight the progress made in schools as a result of the reforms kicked off since Michael Gove.

Let’s look at it in terms of policy development first.

The tables check proposed builds on lessons learned from the Year 1 phonics screening check (PSC), introduced in 2012. Obviously, every school in the land was already trying to teach children to read, but the PSC helped to embed a much more effective means of getting children started with this – “systematic synthetic phonics” – and it provided invaluable information for teachers and parents as to which children were doing well and who’d got off to a wobbly start.

The improvements that the PSC induced have led to the number of children meeting the necessary standard increasing significantly, with 154,000 more doing so last year compared to 2012. That’s 154,000 more kids getting a better start in the world of reading – and the intention is for the tables check to have the same effect for the times tables and maths.

The way the MTC has been tweaked during development is also evidence of the Government trying to get things right before implementation. It’s deliberately been kept simple and specific, limited to a part of maths that is fundamentally important, already taught, and easily and accurately measurable. This means that any additional burden on pupils and schools is minimal, and the results really will tell us if kids can fluently do their tables or not.

The roll-out has been carefully piloted, taking on board lessons and feedback along the way to see what worked best. They also consulted with schools to find out when they felt pupils would most benefit from sitting it – it was the profession that suggested Year 4, with voluntary participation in 2019 and universal entry from 2020.

Importantly, to avoid the MTC becoming too high stakes the results won’t be published on a school-by-school basis, nor will they be used by the Department for Education or Ofsted to judge a school’s performance. This is not the Government going soft either: there’s enough oversight of primary schools already, with them held accountable for results in Year 1, Year 2 and Year 6. And even if results are not officially used by the DfE or Ofsted, you can be sure that heads and governors will unofficially compare how they’re doing to other schools, and give times tables their rightful priority as a result.

Results will be published at a Local Authority level and be available to researchers, so further down the line we’ll have extremely powerful data to draw upon to discover which teaching approaches work best and make the biggest difference to children in the long run. The policy geek in me is salivating at this prospect.

In the MTC then, we have a policy that is universal in reach, simple to comprehend, and works for everyone with an interest in education: parents, teachers, school leaders, educational researchers and wonks alike. This is the very sort of thing that could draw more people’s attention to the improvements made under the Conservatives.

I’ve worked in schools since 2002. I experienced first-hand the endless dumbing-down of curriculum and exams that occurred. I saw how pupils and staff suffered from behaviour and “inclusion” policies that made it harder to keep schools orderly, under the constant worry of an appeal or tribunal. Also how Ofsted got out of control, promoting bizarre practices that dragged the profession down, held schools in fear, and led to a culture of compliance, not scholarship.

Since 2010, much of the attention has been on the big bang policies – mass academisation, free schools, new GCSEs and A-levels, and so on. These were important, but there have also been a series of seemingly small but very significant ones too, focused on re-empowering teachers, and allowing schools to operate on a fairer basis.

To pick just a few, technical changes to how funding is allocated, exams sat and league tables constructed have fundamentally changed the incentives schools face. This encourages them to give children a more rigorous academic curriculum, and ensure money is shared out across areas more fairly. They’re also now judged in ways such that every child really counts.

Heads have been freed up even more to run their schools as they see fit in all sorts of ways including, very importantly, behaviour, with the right of appeal against permanent exclusions removed since 2012. Heads and their Governors now know that, having taken such a difficult decision, they will not be undermined by others. This sends out a strong signal to families that the system is on the side of the vast majority of children who abide by the rules day-in, day-out. It’s made a huge difference to schools being able to ensure children can learn and staff are safe to go about their work.

A fairer funding formula, better behaviour in schools, fluency in numeracy and literacy, a richer National Curriculum, better examinations: these sorts of things appeal to the public’s innate common sense and fairness.

They state loudly and proudly that when children go to our state schools they will be taught the things that will set them on their way in life, in a safe and orderly environment. They make it clear to hundreds of thousands of staff that they are respected and in charge, free to teach the best that has been thought, said, and done, in schools that are judged in a fairer way.

No single policy will solve all the challenges facing our schools. The multiplication tables check, powerful in its own way, needs to be seen in the broader context of things bedding in after a period of innovation and learning. The Government should make the most of changes such as these though, as they’re the kind of thing that resonate with parents and the wider teaching profession, are easily understood, and will be shown to make a direct difference to children’s lives.

44 comments for: Mark Lehain: The times tables reform. Not a giant leap – but one of so many small steps for the better.

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