A few years ago, a presenter on ITV’s Good Morning Britain asked me what eight times nine was. I was launching the government’s policy for a computer-based times tables test for all nine-year-old primary school pupils. I refused to answer the question, fearing that under the pressure of a live TV interview I might slip and give the wrong answer, with the consequence of shaming newspaper headlines the next day. Alas, the following day’s newspapers ridiculed me anyway for not answering. In fact, I knew the answer was 72, since I’d learnt the multiplication tables up to 12 by heart by the time I was seven.
The ability to recall any multiple up to 12 times 12 has been an immensely valuable skill over the years. It has given me the confidence to learn more complex maths, a useful aid in my early career as a chartered accountant, and the wherewithal to calculate the best multi-pack supermarket bargains. Alongside being able to read and add-up, knowing the multiplication tables is a basic building block for success in life.
But for many people of my generation and those at school since the 1970s, times tables were not part of the curriculum. Chanting the six times tables as a class or rote learning each multiple of numbers up to 12 was regarded by the education establishment as the worst of Gradgrindian Victorian teaching.
I remember meeting a head teacher at a primary school in my constituency soon after being elected to Parliament in 1997. I asked her whether her pupils were taught multiplication tables. She replied, no, but said that she would ask the adviser at West Sussex County Council whether it was good practice. I found that exchange depressing for a raft of reasons, not least the fact that an experienced teacher felt she had to ask an official at County Hall how to teach.
The evidence from cognitive science is that instant recall of important knowledge such as times tables is vital to enable the working memory to carry out more complex tasks.
The American psychologist, Daniel Willingham, in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, explains that the brain’s working memory can only hold half a dozen or so pieces of new information at one time and therefore, in any intellectual activity, such as problem solving or critical thinking, the brain needs instant access to a store of information in its retained memory. This is why a knowledge-rich school curriculum is so important: the more knowledge there is in the information store, the easier it is to solve problems or think critically.
Sadly, that primary school in my constituency was not an isolated example, despite the fact that the National Curriculum at the time required pupils to be taught “number bonds” up to 10 times 10 by the end of primary school. When we came into office after 2010, we changed the National Curriculum to require schools to teach the times tables up to 12 times 12 by Year 4 rather than waiting until Year 6. And we started the painstaking work of introducing a multiplication tables check for nine-year-olds. It needed to be a computer-based test with a time limit of six seconds for each of the 25 questions to ensure pupils knew the answer by heart. The programme has been tested and piloted and this year became compulsory in all primary schools. In June, all 626,000 Year 4 pupils sat the test and the results are published today.
I don’t expect 100 per cent of pupils will have scored full marks. The pressure of a timed quiz, like the pressure of a TV studio for a politician, will no doubt have led to some wrong answers. But I know from visits to schools in recent years that, when I ask pupils in Years 4, 5 and 6 their times tables, more pupils than ever put their hand up and give the right answer.
Improving standards across all schools is a gradual task. It is achieved through a series of small steps, such as the introduction of the multiplication tables and phonics checks, alongside structural changes to enable brilliant headteachers and teachers to innovate, and prioritising school funding, as the Chancellor did again last week when he announced an additional £2 billion for schools this year and next. There is much more work to do, but the publication of the test results today marks another step on the journey to ensuring that all children have the best opportunity to succeed in life.
You can see the original article on telegraph.co.uk here.