What’s wrong with the QTS professional skills tests?

  • What’s wrong with the QTS professional skills tests?

Before you can train to become a teacher you need to satisfy certain mandatory conditions set by the DfE – one of which is to have GCSE maths and English at a minimum of a C grade; the other is to have passes in both QTS professional tests.

The Government’s document on the professional tests states: “The professional skills tests (skills tests) for prospective teachers assess the core skills that teachers need to fulfil their professional role in schools, rather than the subject knowledge needed for teaching. This is to ensure all teachers are competent in numeracy and literacy, regardless of their specialism.”

49,000 prospective teachers sat these tests in 2013/2014 and 39,000 passed them. So we are turning away 10,000 new wannabes. In the previous year we only turned away 1,000; you do the maths. That is 10,000 people who cannot complete one of the most stringent, pressured and quirky maths tests and yet they would make fabulous teachers after a full year of initial teacher training. Yes, we have to have a minimum requirement of ability – but they already have the GCSE C grade requirements.

There are a number of issues relating specifically to the QTS numeracy test. As a Teacher Trainer with Suffolk and Norfolk Initial Teacher Training team I run QTS numeracy test revision sessions, hold Skype support sessions and mentor trainees and have done for some years now. I regularly meet would-be teachers who struggle with the numeracy test and ultimately, I have to question its relevance. There are a number of key issues with it that impact enormously upon the very people that we want to encourage to get into the classroom, and yet are no significant indicator on their ability to be a really great teacher.

Listen up

The test itself consists of two sections. First, a mental maths section comprising 12 questions. This is followed by a longer question set for which a calculator may be used. This latter section is a literary delight and there are many complications surrounding the accessibility of the questions. If a prospective teacher does not pass the test at the first – free – attempt then there are two other chances left, but these are at a cost. If you are unlucky not to pass after three attempts then you cannot resit this test for two years.

Who can afford to embark upon a career that depends upon three attempts at two tests with the chance that you will be barred from attempting to resit for two years if you fail to pass? You would naturally have rethink your whole career path, if only on an income basis.

As I see it, there are issues with both parts of this test. To begin with, what is the pedagogical reasoning behind the need for a mental maths test that is timed to within 18 seconds per question? The question is read out and you hear it through headphones. Then it is repeated whilst you are part way through processing the maths. Have you ever tried answering a maths problem with someone speaking into your ear? It’s very challenging! The only other instance of a timed mental maths element in an assessment is in the SATS test. How does this process help anyone with the maths requirements of a general teacher? And in what way does it highlight the needs and abilities of someone who wishes to teach maths? Having questioned a number of teachers via Twitter about these tests I know there is a big dislike for them, even from a number of eminent maths teachers who still had to sit it themselves before training.

Getting real

And then there is the second section, covering the maths that is supposedly needed for the job of a general teacher. Again the DfE states: “The skills tests:

  • are set in the context of the professional role of a teacher
  • assess the use of real data and information which teachers are likely to encounter
  • go through a stringent quality assurance procedure
  • are extensively piloted and the performance of each test is regularly monitored”

It sounds reasonable in theory – but the plain fact is that these ‘contexts’ are often artificial and awkward. A teacher never needs to sort out the appointment times for parents evening, or the costs for a school trip, because the office does. Who has ever produced a box and whisker plot or scatter graph for their job as a teacher? We have a plethora of computer systems designed to analyse our data to within an inch of its life.

Then there is the innocuous statement that you are precluded from resitting the test for two years after three attempts. Where does this occur anywhere else in society? Even with a driving test you can resit as many times as you want until you reach a satisfactory level of competence, as long as you can keep paying the cost. This is clearly ludicrous. These prospective teachers already have a C grade at GCSE; if that is not deemed satisfactory then simply up the grade requirement.

Practical problems

Anecdotal evidence reveals some shockers at the testing centre, too. Thorough physical searching of the candidates leaves them feeling a little uncomfortable and I have had some instances where ladies have been asked to take a modest cardigan or top off and sit in a little vest top that lies underneath. I fail to see how anything you managed to secrete on your person could help you cheat your way through this test. You don’t physically search the 16 year olds sitting their GCSEs so why do it for this test, especially as it is designed in such a way that cheating is virtually impossible?

Paper for workings can be hard to come by in the centre and those with whiteboards have sometimes been given a permanent marker. One lady used up seven whiteboards in her frustration. There is also a wait of many weeks for tests at some centres, so the advice from the DfE to only sit it when you are ready is a nonsense – as is the fact that you cannot book another test without waiting 48 hours.

I have had a number of strong comments in support of the QTS tests but these are largely from (you guessed correctly) people who run QTS support packages for profit. Some of the support books have copious errors in them rendering them useless – a rip-off in fact. There is no quality control over the websites, courses, books and support available and many people willingly put their hand in their pockets to hand over cash in return for support which is sadly failing in its aims.

I am firmly of the belief that the numeracy test raises an unnecessary barrier to teaching and also risks compounding any loathing for or dread of maths in candidates. As a model of what great school maths assessment could be like it fails miserably in its aim. We are at a time in our school development where maths teachers specifically are in short supply and we are looking to teachers of other subjects to pick it up as an extra; yet instead of suggesting positively to those entering the profession that improving their maths competency might be a good career move – another string to the bow – we put them through a test that is more likely to turn them off it entirely.


Julia Smith is a Teacher Trainer with Suffolk and Norfolk ITT and ACER (Association of Colleges) with a maths specialism. She is also a maths author and prolific on Twitter as @tessmaths. Julia straddles both Secondary and Further Education, being Chair of Governors at Writtle College.