Jayne Dowle: Tough tests on basic skills are vital lesson for teachers

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I thought I was bad at the basics – but now I hear that a fifth of trainee teachers cannot do maths or spell simple words. One in 10 failed their final-year literacy and numeracy tests twice in a row. One poor soul took 37 attempts to pass the maths test. Work out the odds on that.

I wasn’t quite that rubbish, but I did have to sit my Maths O-Level three times before I managed to scrape a C. So I do have some sympathy for this lot. It is no fun slogging away at a basic proficiency test when all you want to do is to get with learning the fun and inspiring stuff. But sometimes you just have to jump through the hoops, as I told our Jack when I forced him to take a two-day cycling proficiency course in the summer holidays. Now I am confident that he is as safe as a nine-year-old on a BMX can be, he rides his bike to school. I can only hope that when he gets there, his teachers know what they are doing. Because if they haven’t got a grip themselves, it doesn’t give this parent much confidence in their ability to impart reading, writing, arithmetic and ICT to a bunch of kids.

Trainee teachers have to pass basic skills tests in literacy, numeracy and ICT (information and communication technology) before they qualify for the classroom. I can hear all those trainees – and their parents, probably – saying that these tests don’t prove anything anyway.

A good teacher is definitely a good teacher, even if they insist on spelling “definitely” as “defiantly”. A common mistake among younger people, if my own students, who are studying journalism and the media, are anything to go by.

I would agree with that. I don’t have much time for random blue-sky-thinking training courses myself. Whatever the jargon du jour, it all seems to come down to common sense in the end. But as an adult, and a teacher myself, I would argue that you that you should never underestimate when you might need a percentage. I use graphs and pie-charts all the time to demonstrate things such as newspaper readership and uptake of social media such as Facebook. And don’t get me started on Venn diagrams. What is social media but a series of Venn diagrams, all these separate groups of individuals who cross over and interact with each other at certain points?

And it’s not just in front of the class that I find myself dredging up the basics of that hard-fought for Maths O-level. I spend a good amount of my time counting students, dividing them into groups, putting them into groups, then adding them all back up again. So I was pleased to see that one of the sample questions in the numeracy test was: “Teachers organised activities for three classes of 24 pupils and four classes of 28 pupils. What was the total number of pupils?” 184, if you’re interested.

And when it comes to marking work, one of our assignments is so complex I had to design a spreadsheet to ensure that the final grade calculation is accurate. When it comes to proving you can teach, it’s not so much a matter of ticking all the correct answers in a multiple choice test. It’s more about having an awareness of the practical application of the fundamentals, so that you can pass them on to others and use them yourself in the classroom.

It’s the same with ICT. If my six-year-old daughter can log herself onto the laptop, find her beloved Moshi Monsters and use up all the colour ink in my printer before the rest of the house gets up on a Saturday morning, I would hope that her teacher can at least show her how to use Photoshop. And this is from someone whose own technical skills are acquired strictly on a need-to-know basis.

But I would hope that by now, with 20-odd years in journalism behind me, I can at least spell and put full stops in the right place. So personally, I don’t fret too much about that bit. But as my husband will testify, this means I can’t help but edit everyone else’s work. When a letter comes home from school, he braces himself for my ranting about random capital letters, missing apostrophes and general lack of care and attention to detail. I am sorry, but there is no excuse for such sloppiness. I hope I don’t sound like a scary old termagant – it’s OK, I know I do – but in my book, clear and effective communication should be inherent in any organisation. It is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

Education Secretary Michael Gove says that from next year, trainee teachers will be allowed only two strikes at the tests. Fail the tests, and they fail to qualify. You have to applaud his resolve. So let’s hope he sticks to it. If nothing else, it will send a message to the kids that if you are to achieve anything of value in life, you shouldn’t expect it to be easy.