In primary school when I was in what we then simply called “the third year” and which later became “Junior Three” and is now “Year Five” my teacher was a certain Mrs Wild, a mature lady with plenty of teaching experience under her belt. Every morning (unless my memory plays tricks on me and it just happened so frequently that it felt like every day) began with a mental arithmetic test and a spelling test. It was all quite informal but also quite regimented. We swapped papers and marked each other’s; we were the top class and were expected to be honourable and trustworthy and certainly above cheating! Those who achieved less than 7/10 (we were the top class and, as such, expected to strive for and to achieve high standards), however, were called to the front of the class, where Mrs Wild raised skirt or short trouser leg sufficiently to administer a sharp slap to the 9- going on 10-year old thigh. I lived in mortal terror of getting less than 7/10! I never did so but the fear of that slap was always there. She would not get away with it now but, boy, did we know our spellings and our sums.
For some time that kind of rote learning went out of fashion. What children wrote became more important than whether they could spell. And children should understand the mechanics of multiplication rather than chant times tables. All well and good, but spelling correctly is important, and stops you from looking foolish in later life, and knowing your tables makes all the calculations so much easier.
And now the government plans to introduce a test for times tables in primary schools. It will be tried out on 8- to 9-year olds in a few schools this year and will become mandatory for all in 2020. The powers that be hasten to assure us that the short on-screen test “will last no longer than five minutes and has been designed to avoid causing additional stress for children and teachers” and that “the results would not be published and would not be used by the schools watchdog Ofsted to enforce any changes”. So that’s all right then!
I recognise that our schoolchildren are already tested to within an inch of their lives by maybe introducing testing will ensure that times tables are actually taught. Stuff has a tendency to get squeezed out of the curriculum by the pressure of teaching things that everyone knows will be tested. Maybe some kind of testing for Art and Music should be introduced to ensure that they are given space and time in the classroom. Here is a link to a blog about the importance of starting art appreciation early.
Truth to tell, I am a great believer in learning by heart stuff that will make the rest of education, and the rest of life for that matter, easier to deal with. I often told my Modern Foreign Languages students that learning another language was 5% understanding the system and 95% memorising stuff. And I believe in testing ... within reason! In the A-Level classes I taught we used to do quick verb and vocab tests on a regular basis with a league table and prizes at the end of each month. My lollipops probably did nothing for teenage teeth and waistlines but may have boosted grades. And these were all bright students so nobody was traumatised by not winning a lollipop.
It was all a bit of fun, unlike the formal testing that came later. And the formal testing that seems to come sooner and sooner at present!