Times tables tests : a little bit of history repeating

    Published: 19 March 2017

    Our advisers at Herts for Learning are privileged to work in many schools in and beyond Hertfordshire and on our travels meet real gems. One of these chance encounters was with the writer of this hugely interesting guest blog.  Alan Parr contacted us after reading our blog ‘When Timestables get Political‘  where the following comment resonated strongly for him.

    Those halcyon days just did not exist; it has ever been true that some pupils find learning their tables harder than others…

    Alan let us know that he had made some pretty intriguing finds about the learning of times tables from school log books…it seems some things really never change. Read on for the shocking truth. 

    Alan Parr started teaching before England had won the World Cup and when no-one had heard of The Beatles (his blog is called  http://established1962.wordpress.com/ ).  He was once Hertfordshire’s Lead Adviser for Primary Mathematics, and for the last seven years has been a Making Good Progress tutor at the Thomas Coram Junior School in Berkhamsted – a building he first taught in forty years ago.

    Long after many countries had universal elementary education England was known for having perhaps the worst schools in Europe.  No-one had much interest in schooling; there had been too many revolutions in Europe for the landed gentry to want the population to become educated, and parents and employers were keen to have children – even those as young as six or seven – working for a living.

    Consequently, it wasn’t until 1832 that the Government made the first tentative grant, putting £20 000 towards the building of elementary schools.  Of course, the £20 000 covered the country as a whole, but a new school might cost only £60 or so, so it was a useful start.  A few years later a system allowing promising pupils to train in their schools was developed, followed by the emergence of training colleges.  At last elementary education in England had taken off, and growth and momentum were rapid – I found a reference as soon as 1850 to a teachers’ magazine which encouraged teachers “to make the learning of tables interesting, instead of mere mechanical routine”.

    But within a few years the Government found to its horror that the £20 000 grant had grown to nearly a million pounds every year.  As governments invariably do in such cases, it set up a committee, and in 1862 the draconian Revised Code was introduced.  The Code soon became known as Payment By Results, for schools would only receive a grant for those children who met nationally decreed standards of attainment and attendance.

    Anyone who’s been involved in education in recent times will have little difficulty in believing what happened next. Children were tested annually the “Three Rs”, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic.  Children worked in one of six levels of attainment, known as Standards.  Not surprisingly, the examination became the focal point of the school year.  The Head’s job security depended upon the results, so the curriculum narrowed down to the three Rs and little else, with children spending the preceding weeks or even months doing nothing but practise for the examination.  I found that one school even postponed the Christmas and New Year holidays until after the Inspector’s visit!

    In the run-up to the tests even Scripture lessons might be abandoned, a serious matter given how important the church, and in particular the Rector, was to most schools.  For example, a week before the inspection in 1865 one Head recorded in her logbook “Instead of having Scripture Lessons children questioned on the Multiplication Table”.

    The examination was carried out via a visit from one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors.  Most HMI were appointed for their Church connections, usually with a university background; they’d see themselves having considerably higher social standing than a mere teacher and often they might have little understanding of children.  So both teacher and children might dread the annual visit; at least one Head was so terrified by a coming inspection that she drowned herself.

    The actual arithmetic syllabus could hardly have been more narrow.  In Standard I, for the youngest children, the requirement was “Form on blackboard or slate, from dictation, figures up to 20. Name at sight figures up to 20. Add and subtract figures up to 10, orally, from examples on blackboard”.

    Standard II required “A sum in simple addition or subtraction and the multiplication table”, and Standard III “A sum in any simple rule as far as short division (inclusive)”.  For most, schooling would finish well before they reached higher Standards.

    School logbooks make it clear that such a limited syllabus and so much at stake meant teachers gave the highest priority to the learning of tables.  We see teachers devising the same techniques we use today – “Find the plan of getting St II to learn their Multiplication Tables at home answers well.”  And “Encouraged children to get table books of their own, bring them to school and say tables from them.”

    Teachers recognised the benefits of a little and often approach: “Find the II St know much of their Multiplication Table, as I devote a short time on Tuesdays and Fridays to hearing it having been learnt at home”.  They seized every opportunity for a little practice, even when lining up in the playground: “Examined the children in the Multiplication Table while at the line”.  I even found a Head who devised the Buddy approach used in my own school, observing, as we too find, its value to both parties: “On Thursday adopted a fresh plan for teaching Arithmetic.  For about twenty minutes gave everyone on the three upper classes a child from the lower classes to teach ….  Found it beneficial to both the elder and the younger ones.

    It’s frequently asserted that children used to know their tables perfectly, but it’s clear that this common belief simply isn’t true.  Virtually every logbook finds Heads bemoaning their pupils’ inadequate knowledge.  One Head writes in three successive months he finds it necessary to keep one class in for not learning their tables.  Next year’s equivalent class is just as unsuccessful, and the year after that he finds himself keeping them behind not occasionally but every day for a week. (Declining standards, no doubt!)  And this is no ogre, but a Head who joins the children at play, and enjoys snowball fights and playing cricket with them.  Children bring him flowers, and worry when he’s ill.  He’s constantly looking to find better ways to teach; he’s ambivalent about using the cane, but is forced to admit that other punishments don’t always work – “Find that threatening children with an extra ½ hr at school is no punishment for some say they would like staying.”

    It was the Payment By Results code that required schools to keep a logbook, so logbooks aren’t actually all that rare.  Some have been transcribed and others put onto CD ROM, so they can be both convenient and inexpensive to study.  Much of what you read comes across as truly historical – children unable to attend because they have no boots, or absenting themselves at harvest time because they’re working in the fields.  There are enormous class sizes – in one case 104 children in a room so small they had to take turns to sit down.  Illness and epidemics are frequent and pupil funerals are tragically by no means unusual – one terrible story featured a family who lost each of their five children in a measles outbreak.

    In other ways you find yourself thinking that things haven’t changed a bit – demanding pupils “Oliver G cannot be left a minute without his getting into mischief …”, daunting workloads and endless paperwork, publishers offering workcards and schemes promising to meet syllabus requirements, and – of course – the never-ending struggle to master the multiplication tables.

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