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The new MTC – a Headteacher’s perspective

Primary Headteacher Nick Hart shares his thoughts on the new Multiplication Tables Check (MTC), a statutory requirement for all primary schools in England set to be introduced in June 2020.

After a trial last summer, the Multiplication Tables Check will become compulsory for all English primary schools in June. What does this mean for schools, and what’s the best way to prepare?

The MTC has the potential to irk school leaders and Year 4 teachers. It has such a narrow focus – only multiplication and not division, and therefore no multiplicative reasoning. In fact, it includes no reasoning at all – just straight recall. 

The Department for Education (DfE) tells us that the purpose of the MTC is to determine whether pupils can recall their times tables fluently, which is essential for future success in mathematics. There is nothing controversial then with the purpose, but perhaps more so with the methods. Many schools will attest to being able to identify these levels of fluency without a statutory test. 

The DfE also assures us that the check will help schools to identify pupils who have not yet mastered their times tables, so that additional support can be provided. That said, it is not intended to be a diagnostic tool. Again, a noble aim, but one that most teachers or school leaders would say is easily done without a formal times table speed test.

No one can argue against the importance of children being able to automatically recall times tables facts. Doing so takes up little of a child’s working memory, and so enables the more successful application of multiplication facts to wider problem solving. There are other at least equally important number facts that all children should know. How about addition and subtraction facts to twenty at an earlier age?

Regardless of the choice of maths facts to test, and the age at which to test them, the MTC Year 4 times tables check will now be statutory from June 2020. School leaders and Year 4 teachers may as well look to make the most of it. Children should know their times tables, providing us with an opportunity to capitalise on the attention that the test has brought.

How do children develop good conceptual understanding of multiplication?

If teachers weave a variety of key activities into their maths teaching over time, children can develop a sound conceptual understanding. Skip counting, arrays, bar models, number lines, counters, and bead strings can all be transformational. 

How many times tables facts are there to learn?

It’s not 144. Excluding the 1 times tables, there are 66 times tables facts for children to learn. This takes into account the commutativity of, for example, 3 x 4 and 4 x 3, and that they can be treated as one fact. If we remove the 2 and the 10 times tables (arguably ‘easier’), that leaves just 38 times table facts for a child to learn. 

This is manageable, and the number of facts becomes even smaller when children eventually realise that they never get some questions wrong. Over time, we can reduce the number of facts that each child does not know, and instead have them focusing on just the last remaining tricky ones.

Emphasis will be placed on those tables taught at Key Stage 2, with a focus on the 6, 7, 8, 9 and 12 multiplication tables because these have been determined to be the most difficult multiplication tables. The table below shows the maximum and minimum number of items in each check form from each multiplication table.

How do children get faster and more accurate at recalling facts?

If we want children to be able to recall facts from their long-term memory instantly (and we do because it frees up their working memory to think about more complex things) they need to practise just that – remembering. A great way to practise is through low stakes testing – answering questions where the result does not matter. 

Flashcards are also an effective way of practising — question on the front, answer on the back. Children work through the pile. If they get it correct, make a pile to the right. If they get it wrong, make a pile to the left. At the end, pick up the pile to the left and go through them again until all the cards are on the right-hand pile.

The importance of familiarity

Transfer of learning can be difficult. A child might be able to count in any times table but not be as quick with answering specific questions. They might be great at answering rapid-fire questions orally but do less well with pencil and paper. As such it can be important for children to familiarise themselves with the type of test that they will sit. 

Sumdog provides a great tool that mimics the MTC, including the time limit for each question, the pause in between each question, and the likelihood of questions in the 6, 7, 8, 9, and 12 multiplication tables appearing more often. That provides a realistic replica of the times table speed test environment which pupils will be presented within the MTC. 

This design is in direct response to the DfE’s MTC assessment framework, which prescribes six seconds per question, and stipulates that more questions will come from the most difficult multiplication tables. 

MTC undoubtedly presents an additional statutory burden on teachers. Yet while the Year 4 times tables test may be unwelcome in its delivery, the fundamental question of supporting multiplication tables fluency should itself be championed. Sumdog provides a helpful tool in meeting that need, and ultimately supporting the goal of ensuring students can get to grips with learning their essential times tables.