Nicky Morgan’s Policy just doesn’t add up

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Please Note: I would normally like to insert links to useful research, blogs, news items etc. in my blogs, but time is pressing and I wanted to get this out today. If I have time, I will update later with some links.

All Children Must Learn Times Tables – that is an order, direct from the Secretary of State!

I’m from the generation where I had to recite times tables twice a day in primary school. I went to a Church primary, if we failed we got caned. Did I learn them? Yes. They can be useful when shopping or doing a rough estimate. Whether or not they have made me fully numerate is another question. I get by in maths. I have to, I did a science degree, I taught science. I do some quantitative work in my research. None of the former were really helped by knowing the times tables.

I also know the first twenty elements of the period table. This did not help me understand chemistry. I learned a few Shakespeare quotations by heart (e.g. from the Merchant of Venice, The quality of mercy is not strained…), again no use in my life other than as a party trick now and again.



So what are we to make of this ‘new’ pronouncement and policy on tackling poor numeracy and literacy (again the ‘war’ metaphor raises its ugly head).

I can see secondary maths teachers in general liking the idea that 100% of 11 year olds will be able to instantly recall multiplications up to 12 x 12. Perhaps English teachers would like 100% of all 11 year olds to be able to spell a defined list of say 144 of the most commonly misspelled words in English. What about 100% of all 11 year olds learning all the Kings and Queens of Britain, or has someone already proposed that? Then perhaps 144 rivers, or 144 chemical elements (the fact that, at present, we only have 118 known elements will be an inconvenience no doubt).

In China 6 year olds are required to learn 3000 characters – that is part of their ‘literacy’. Memory is a great thing, but memory does not equal numeracy or literacy. memorizing things is a very useful skill, though not a predictor of intelligence per se.

This new policy and the idea that we should be in the ‘top 5’ of the PISA results by 2020 is great politics, but extremely poor education policy. League tables are a very bad indicator of success – look at how many ‘top teams’ have been knocked out of the FA cup by much lower teams in much lower leagues – should Chelsea now abandon it’s coaching and training strategy and employ the strategies of Bradford?

To succeed in PISA we would at least have to have a curriculum  that taught what PISA examine. This means our curriculum is not decided by us, but by an international committee. Surely our curriculum should be decided on what we value and think is right for our children and not on what other countries (which may well have different needs) require?

So is Rote Learning All Bad?

Rote learning some things is not all bad. I don’t object to times tables, or learning some Shakespeare or even some maths formulas or chemical elements, but when people’s jobs and careers, are decided on such things it has to be wrong.

Can we get 100% of 11 years olds to learn their times tables?

IN SHORT NO. It is a silly aspiration, a ridiculous target. There would have to be many exemptions for this for numerous pupils whose special needs or disabilities mean that such a target is a complete nonsense. I wonder how many appeals we would have due to illness etc. on the day of the test? Would they have to show they can actually do all twelve tables up to 12 x 12 or would we ‘sample’? What if a kid hits lucky and just knows the ones asked for, but doesn’t know, for example, their 9 times table and we didn’t ask that question?

Can we Force a child to Learn?

NO. Children can be stubborn, they can be awkward, they can ‘not do’ things to ‘spite’ you, they can be brilliant yet forgetful, they can be studious yet fail to comprehend or remember even simple things.

In my primary school days learning was ‘forced’ through the threat of violence – the cane. It was regularly meted out for simple infringements like not knowing a table or misquoting a beloved poem of the teacher. Mr T (I won’t give his full name) was the nastiest teacher in my primary. Many years later, when I was a teacher myself, I asked him why he was so vicious, authoritarian and why he loved the fact that all children feared him. He said (and I paraphrase here)

It was always for the good of the children – learning doesn’t come naturally to kids, especially those from ‘poor homes’. If I have a dog and I want to teach it, I use cruelty as a kindness – if the stupid dog tries to run across the road and I shout at it, it will stop in fear at my voice and I will have saved its life. That’s what I did for all the children I taught – they dare not, not learn something in my class and then they will thank me later when they get a good job, I will have saved them from their own ignorance and made their lives better.

I never thanked him, and I never will, as I believe he was thoroughly misguided and wrong.

Knowledge vs Understanding

And so we come to the most argued about bit – does ‘knowing’ something mean you understand it? Some people argue that I’m splitting hairs when it comes to knowledge vs understanding, that they are fundamentally one and the same thing. I disagree. I will say that knowledge is a precursor to understanding, but that knowledge does not have to be, for all things and for all time, permanent.

So, for me, knowledge in the form of recall of facts, recall of times tables or Shakespeare does not equal understanding. I knew some passages from the Merchant of Venice – did I understand the meaning? No. Did I get the themes behind the play? Not really. At the age of 14 of course I did not. When it came to Shakespeare’s plays, my understanding of them arose not by memorizing lines, but from acting in them when I was a member of a Youth Theatre. I understood the meaning behind Hamlet’s famous soliloquy not by learning the speech (I was the Player King in this, not Hamlet), but by listening to the actor making the speech and by watching the rehearsals and talking about it with him. I have since learned some of it, just for fun.

There is a lot of intellectual snobbery surrounding the rote learning of things like Shakespeare and various ‘classic’ poems. I know no poems off by heart, I know a few short passages of Shakespeare. Once, at a party, one intellectual snob kept quoting famous lines, poems, Shakespeare and lauding it over those who could not, including me. He presented himself as this erudite man intellectually superior from the rest of us. At one point, I ended up chatting to a small group and he came over. I flattered him and said how impressed I was at his abilities. I asked “could he do one more for us?”,  “Of course” he said – “how about the first twenty elements of the periodic table?” I said, “I bet you can rattle those off, with no problem, a really clever man like you”. His eyes opened wide his mouth gaped and he stormed off, with the rest of the group laughing at him. I’m not proud of a put down like that – (I was in my twenties and much more immature then).

I know lots of science facts and I can recite certain science principles, laws and theories – but nobody seems to care about that!

Is this proposed policy really going to work?

No. The idea that you simply walk in and replace a senior leadership team if 100% of your pupils don’t pass these tests 2 years in a row is a nonsense. It is linked to forced academisation and, as has been illustrated elsewhere – most recently in government reports, academisation seems to have little to no effect on standards. The policy of changing school structures as a means to raising standards is a busted flush. It does not have the effect that Gove promised – a transformation in our schools.

The real agents of change are the teachers and senior leaders in schools

Threatening to sack anyone who does not perform well will not bring about reform and change that is sustainable. It will do more damage than good. Teachers will be placed under even more pressure to get results fast – leading to much more bullying in the workplace and frequent disruptive staff changes.

Heads will not wish to take on any school where there is even a slight chance that the pupil cohort isn’t already meeting the targets set. Children who have genuine difficulty in just memorizing things will be labelled as failures from the earliest of ages, some may even find it difficult to get school places as ‘hidden selection’ becomes the way of ensuring you keep your job.

What if a group of parents wishes to unseat a Head? Quite simple to tell your children to get a couple of answers wrong, fail a test and hey presto – the Head and the SLT get sacked!

Counting Down to the Election

In my view this is a political puff policy –  it has already served its purpose in grabbing a headline in the Tory press – front and (OK not quite) centre – it certainly had the largest font, making it the lead. Will it come to pass? I doubt it. Certainly not in the form in which it is being reported.

Oh, and by the way, take it from a scientist – don’t trust atoms! They make up everything. (OK I’ll get my coat…)


One thought on “Nicky Morgan’s Policy just doesn’t add up

    Paul Braterman said:
    February 1, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    There seems to be a right wing obsession with learning inflexible “basics”. In the US, conservatives push for teaching reading by way of phonics rather than word recognition, while Michael Gove famously thought that all students should learn the basics of science, including Boyles law and [sic] Newton’s laws of thermodynamics: see and

    Ms Morgan’s own educational background is in jurisprudence, which of course makes her admirably qualified to tell primary school teachers what is, and what is not, important for their pupils to learn in the way of maths and science.

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