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Who needs to learn when you can do everything with lists?


Who needs to learn when you can do everything with lists?


The latest compulsory tests will be on multiplication tables, for 11-year-olds Getty Images

The Education Secretary has explained the priority for schools this year. It’s more tests. Tests and lists and tests of lists to make school useful again, so teachers will say, “Right, class, we’re going to recite the list we learnt of Suffolk towns in alphabetical order. Don’t forget to sound increasingly bored so by the time we get to Stowmarket it’s barely a mumbled grimace. Then we’ll be ready to pass our geography test. Off you go.”

And they’ll chant, “Aldeburgh, Beccles, Bungay, Bury St Edmunds.” Then one boy will shout, “Diss,” and the teacher will yell, “STOP! Who said Diss? Since when has Diss moved from Norfolk to Suffolk, for goodness’ sake?” And the poor sod will have to stay behind and do extra practice, such as learning the scorecard from a cricket match between Sussex and Kent at Hove in 1974. Because every study shows that the best way to educate someone is to harness all their enthusiasm, then destroy it and teach them lists. 

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The latest compulsory tests will be on multiplication tables, for 11-year-olds. The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, was interviewed several times about the tests, and each time was given a multiplication which she refused to answer, saying, “There will be one where I get it wrong and that’s the one everyone will focus on.” That’s so unfair, isn’t it, that if an Education Secretary who insists all 11-year-olds must pass a times-table test says that six times three is five, that’s the bit that gets reported. 

It’s become one of the skills a politician has to acquire, to avoid specially phrased sneaky trick questions from interviewers, such as: “Education Secretary, what’s nine times two?” But she saw it off beautifully, and presumably the kids doing the tests will get extra marks if they give answers in the same way.

Parents will be called by excited teachers who say, “Nathan is an absolute genius at maths. His answer to ‘seven times six’ was, ‘Look, I came here to answer questions about my overall strategy towards numbers and I won’t be drawn on precise figures at this stage which will be revealed in due course when I make a statement in October.’” 

The new tests could even become profitable, if the numbers can be sponsored. So 11 nines would be Direct Line 99, and three sixes would be 18 per cent off all Harris carpets until 31 January hurry hurry hurry we must be crazy. And it won’t just be about big business because prime numbers will be available for small independent firms as well.

The Conservatives are so keen on returning to the delightful old values, the times-table tests will go up to 12 times 12, a quaint reflection of when we used proper English shillings and imperial weights rather than this modern permissive European politically correct decimal muck that’s been forced on us lately. So it’s essential to learn the 12 times table, for all those occasions when you slip through a space-time vortex and find yourself working on a farm in 16th-century Dorset. 

Nicky Morgan can also be proud that British kids are now the most tested children in Europe. But there’s still work to do. Babies could be sent to pre-nursery centres, and tested on whether they can cry the names of King Henry VIII’s wives by the age of four months. 

Even then, most parents wouldn’t be able to compete with the ones who tell you, “We sent Jalapeño to extra tuition while he was in the womb, which is why he was playing the clarinet before he was born.”

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Soon, every subject will be reduced to lists and tests. Instead of History having to take notice of opinions and emotions, teachers will say, “No, Dane, you can’t find Malcolm X inspiring, because he’s not on the list of people who are inspiring. The list goes: Joan of Arc, Churchill, David Beckham, Nelson Mandela and Nigella Lawson. You should have learnt that by now.”

I was told of one school where the head was asked why the Holocaust had been dropped from the history course, and replied, “There’s no point, as it’s not part of the exam.” So if his students were listening to the account of an Auschwitz survivor, they’d say, “This is all very well, love, but it would be more useful if you could run through a list of copper alloys as there’s a chemistry test coming up on Tuesday.”

It isn’t just at school but in every area of life that tests are taking over. Every course or workplace scheme ends with a test in which the people who are the best at something do worse than those who know how to pass tests. 

The Great British Bake Off will be replaced with a test, so instead of baking, the winner is the first to recite what makes a perfect cake: “Moistness, Crumbliness, No Cracks In Icing, Gooiness,” which they’ll be told to remember with the helpful acronym MCNCIIG.

The Olympics will become a series of tests, in which Bradley Wiggins comes 143rd because he spelt “velocity” wrong.

This is all part of the Prime Minister’s vision, in which he declared: “I want everyone to have an education as good as mine.” And I would certainly have enjoyed his Etonian standards at Swanley Comprehensive, if we’d all been taken to dinner and told to chuck food at each other and the school would pay for the damage. And we’d have found it fascinating when the teacher said, “Now who knows what this is? That’s right, Melanie, it’s a pig. Now who can guess what we’re going to do with this? Eat it? Good guess, Peter, but not quite right…”

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