Why The Multiplication Tables Check Matters

Cassie Young is Head of School at Brenzett CofE Primary School. You can find her on Twitter @ModernCassie.

When was the last time you used some basic numeracy? Was it when you paid for your coffee this morning? Or perhaps when you were measuring out ingredients for dinner last night?

We use numbers countless times every day. They surround us and consume us and they’re an inescapable part of our world, enriching all that we do. We take our ability to deal with them completely for granted, and I don’t think the thought of not being able to deal with them ever really crosses any of our minds.

Can you imagine what that would be like? To be genuinely functionally innumerate? To struggle with even basic calculations, an adult on the same level as primary school children?

The sad truth is that this is a reality for a lot of people. One fifth of UK adults are unable to work out either fractions or percentages. Just under half of pupils got a 5 or better in Maths GCSE last year, and you can bet that some of those skills are quickly being forgotten; almost 17 million UK adults only have Maths skills that match what is expected of an eleven year old.

As a Primary Head, I know that these issues are often already there when a child joins in Reception, and can be irreversibly embedded by the time a pupil graduated to Secondary. It is one of the fundamental jobs of a primary school to ensure that all of its pupils are numerate, and that just isn’t happening in too many cases. How do we fix it? How can we alter these awful statistics for the better?

It is worth looking beyond the confines of the Maths textbook in search of the solution. Maths and English are often judged together, particularly in Primary school, and the country has faced (and continues to face) similar difficult issues when it comes to literacy. In that case, one of the government’s responses was to introduce the phonics check, which has seen increasing success since it was introduced. Now, for numeracy, we have a similar intervention in the form of the multiplication tables check.

The familiarisation window for the check has opened, meaning that schools can now register pupils, test out the questions with them, and give feedback before the pilot in June, which is the last stop before the check is rolled out to everyone in 2020. Schools involved in the pilot can now access the questions and familiarise their children with them, which is an important part of helping them learn their times tables.

The check is not a silver bullet for addressing numeracy issues, any more than phonics is for literacy. It needs to be used as part of a whole-school focus on boosting numeracy at every age. But I really do think that it will help matters, particularly in schools where pupils have been leaving without reaching the expected level in Maths. Even in schools that have been doing well on this, it will help indicate who may need more support and give time to reflect on what is working well across the Key Stages.

For years people from different backgrounds and generations have shared a common disdain for Maths, to the point where many seem almost proud of a limited mathematical skillset. Anyone who has taught in a disadvantaged area will know the frustration of a parent who has little regard for academic pursuits, and nowhere is this more common than when discussing Maths. I’ve even seen it among former teaching colleagues – really smart people who just crumble when it comes to numbers.

We therefore need to develop a love of Maths, numbers and learning within our young people, to break a cycle of underachievement and ensure that the next generation are as numerate as possible.

At my school we use Times Tables Rock Stars, which we have found to be really effective at both building knowledge and enthusiasm for numeracy. Perhaps most importantly, it’s led to a big increase in the confidence of the children. That’s vital, given how disinterested many can be in Maths before they begin.

The multiplication tables check should do the same thing on an even bigger scale; all primary schools will now have to extensively engage with this vital aspect of numeracy, and whilst many already do so, we can always do more. The check itself will be straightforward and fairly quick; the real benefit will come from the increased focus on numeracy that it will bring in the months and years beforehand. That will give more pupils than ever the confidence and knowledge required to succeed in Maths.

The benefits of knowing your times tables are clear. The way it frees up working memory can be vital well beyond school, right through your whole adult life. But even more importantly, they should be the first step on a journey of wonder and discovery through numbers, that sets up each pupil for a lifetime of confidence and understanding of key mathematical concepts. The multiplication tables check will help with that, and that is why I support it.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.