Of course the MTC induces anxiety! It’s a timed test!

Much has been said about MTC scores not being used to judge teachers or schools, but most of us are sceptical – you don’t spend millions of pounds setting up and running a times table test for the nation’s 9-year-olds unless you feel pretty strongly about 9-year-olds knowing their times tables. And if the 9-year-olds don’t know their times tables, it won’t be them under scrutiny.

So, in the run up to the MTC, most Year 4 teachers will be dedicating considerable time and effort on getting multiplication facts into the heads of their pupils. That tells pupils that this test matters.

I’m not a fan of the MTC. I think it focuses time and attention on memorization in an unhelpful way. The test will induce anxiety in many, if not most, children, and will encourage children and adults to falsely correlate speed and mathematical prowess. It may well put some children off maths.

But the test is a fact of life, at least for 2023 and the foreseeable future. So, in the spirit of trying to make a bad thing less bad, I offer some thoughts.

Access arrangements for the MTC

Invest a few minutes in a close reading of the section on access arrangements in the MTC Administration Guidance. The guidance on Access Arrangement is on page 9-11, Section 2.7.

I have worked with many teachers over the last year, and some teachers have been far more pro-active than others about maximising the permissible use of access arrangements.

Access arrangements are available for pupils including those with an EHCP, and those on the SEND or EAL registers. But access arrangements are also available for children, who have behavioural, emotional or social difficulties.” Emotional difficulties would clearly include test-induced anxiety and I cannot see any reason why every child who is experiencing anxiety about the test can’t be given access to one, or both, of the access arrangements described below; either could significantly reduce anxiety levels.

Prior permission is not required for any of the available access arrangements; you can simply type in a reason online for why you have activated a particular access arrangement.

The ‘NEXT’ button

One of the access arrangements is the option to inject a longer break between questions. This does not given an advantage to pupils by giving them longer than the standard 6 seconds per question but it does slow down the pace at which children are bombarded with questions. This is the full text from the guidance on page 10:

The standard version of the check includes 3-seconds pause between questions. If this is not long enough for a specific pupil, or the pace of the check may disadvantage the pupil, a ‘Next’ button can be enabled. Instead of 3-seconds pause, the pupil can select ‘Next’ when they are ready to start a new question. The check administrator should be aware the next question will not appear until the pupil selects the ‘Next’ button and may consider prompting them to select it, if needed. There is a 30-minute time limit to complete the check using this access arrangement.

Please note this access arrangement does not extend the time given to answer each question.

It strikes me that “the pace of the check may disadvantage” most 9-year-olds. 25 questions in 225 seconds. It’s tough, even for adults, to hold your nerve and concentration for such an intense burst. Would 25 questions over 1800 seconds be easier? Yes, for most of us. Adults find the test stressful, if they know their scores are going to be public, and most don’t get 25 out of 25! My hunch is that most children (and most adults) would get more correct answers if they were given access to the NEXT button and could decide themselves when they were ready for the next question. Remember, the NEXT button doesn’t give you longer than six seconds to answer, just longer to calm your mind in between each question.

An ‘Adult Input Assistant’

The section on Input Arrangements (page 11) clearly states that it is valid to use an adult input assistant if a child can input, but inputs “very slowly” or finds inputting “very difficult”. Children have only a six second window to read the question, work out the answer and to input it correctly. “Very slowly” therefore means anything longer than 6 seconds in total. Not so very slow after all. If you have a child that knows answers that they are not able to type in within six seconds, then there is every reason to provide them with an adult to input dictated answers.

Making the MTC more child-friendly

Personally, I cannot see why all children can’t be given access to the NEXT button. It does not advantage them, unless giving them a tool to manage their test anxiety counts as advantaging them. We need to be clear here: are we testing knowledge of multiplication facts or an 8/9-year-old’s ability to manage the stress of a timed test? I hope the Department of Education are only focused on the former and will not balk at the widespread use of the NEXT button.

The more teachers that arrange access to the NEXT button for their students, the more the Department of Education are likely to reconsider the format of the test. And that can only be a good thing for the wellness of our young people and their test scores! While the MTC remains in place, please use all permissible routes to reducing children’s anxiety around the test!