Top ten tips to pass the QTS Numeracy test

For many people the QTS Numeracy test is the most intimidating hurdle to initial teacher training, especially now the “three strikes” rule can result in a two year freeze from being allowed to apply again. Here’s what I’ve learned from the experiences of dozens of my clients I helped to prepare for and pass the test.

First, if you’re stressed out by the test, remember it could have been worse! There were plans in 2014 to raise the difficulty level, for instance adding tougher algebra. Fortunately these were abandoned — it was felt that capping the number of attempts had already made it challenging enough.

Nevertheless, more than 90% of candidates will pass their test within the three attempts permitted, and the syllabus is mostly set at GCSE grade C and below. If you have a GCSE grade C or above, then with the right approach you should be confident of success in your QTS Numeracy too! What can you do to maximise your chances of success?

  1. Treat the test with respect. It’s taken online, booked at a time you choose, and with multiple attempts, not a one-chance-only pen-and-paper exam in a traditional exam hall on a fixed date in summer… but don’t get lulled into treating it as anything other than a “proper exam”. Think how you would have studied for a GCSE, an A-level or a university module. Make the time to prepare properly, well in advance.
  2. Understand the syllabus requirements, don’t just revise your GCSE Maths. Most GCSE topics, especially algebra and geometry, aren’t in the QTS test at all. Revising from your old GCSE revision guide or past papers isn’t using your time efficiently. There’s also not enough emphasis on mental arithmetic for GCSE compared to QTS, and if you revise from Foundation tier material, some topics you need (e.g. box plots) will be missing.
  3. Get a good book, but beware of books written for the abandoned, tougher specification. The best books make it clear exactly what the QTS test will require you to do, and give you plenty of practice material. Sadly, some books were published for the cancelled “new syllabus” and are pretty much useless — use my guide to books for the QTS numeracy test to pick out the best ones and avoid those written for the wrong specification.
  4. There are limited practice tests, so use them wisely. If you keep practising the same tests, you’ll just memorise the answers. Use books and worksheets for the bulk of your preparation, and save practice tests for later. Try to keep at least one in reserve, so you can use it to judge whether you’re ready for the actual test — if you can pass an unseen practice test with a comfortable safety margin of a couple of marks, then you can confidently book the real thing. See also my post on what exactly the pass mark for QTS Numeracy is, as it can give you a target to aim for.
  5. Don’t book a test as a “trial run” — take it only when you’re ready. I’ve met people who used their first strike just to “get used to the experience” of being in a real test. This puts much more pressure on your remaining attempts! If you want to get a feel for what the test centres are like, and your English skills are better than your maths, why not concentrate on taking your Literacy test first? Take the Numeracy when you’re confident you should pass, not as an experiment.
  6. Check your eligibility for extra time, or for mental arithmetic questions to appear on-screen. This covers various conditions including, but not limited to, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and hardness of hearing. Less well-known is extra time for people who speak English as an additional language (EAL) — this may even apply if you are a fluent English speaker, and only spoke a different first language during early childhood. Paperwork is required for physical/learning disabilities (you can reuse appropriate assessments from school/university), but don’t assume you can’t apply for the EAL status just because you don’t have documentary proof of your first language. Read the Access Arrangements guide and call the helpline.
  7. Ease the time pressure in the mental arithmetic test by memorising key facts. This is the most stressful part of QTS Numeracy. Any fact you can recall, instead of working out on the spot, saves seconds and makes the time limits far more comfortable. Do you know your multiplication tables up to 12, backwards and forwards? Many people are fast at 6 times 9, slower at 9 times 6, and even worse at 54 divided by 6, even though they’re really the same “times table fact”. Learn your facts all ways round! The 15, 20, 25 and 60 times tables are also all useful, and you should memorise the important fraction-decimal-percentage conversions on this sheet, particularly the eighths! Learning common fractions of an hour helps solve distance-speed-time problems.
  8. Build regular practice of basic skills into your daily routine. Although it’s called “mental” arithmetic, your written techniques are more important than being able to do it in your head! You need to master many methods, including cancelling fractions, finding percentages, division, long multiplication (especially with decimals), finding mean, median, mode or range… and the key to mastery is practice, practice, practice. This also applies for memorising your key facts. Can you fit in regular five or ten minute bursts — at breakfast, on the train, during breaks at work or ad breaks on TV? Some students show big improvements when they start incorporating mental maths into everyday activities, like working out change in the supermarket, or distance-speed-time calculations in the car. I also maintain a list of online maths resources that are perfect for regular, short, sharp, intense practice sessions.
  9. Recruit friends, colleagues and family to give you a network of support. If you don’t understand something you’ve read, it’s good to have someone to talk things over with. Quick-fire times table questions can keep you on your toes, while having someone read a question aloud to you twice is a far better simulation of the mental arithmetic section than you looking at it on a page. Try not to be too self-conscious to share your vulnerabilities in maths with other people — positive social pressure can help you achieve your goals by not letting you “get away with” things like letting practice slip during a hectic week at work. Many of my students found using a support network like this was key to their success.
  10. Seek support early if you’re struggling with concepts. It’s hard to build up maths skills without good foundations, especially when self-studying. If you’re finding basic maths murky and mysterious, and it’s impairing your ability to move forward onto the more advanced material you need to pass the test, try to get help from a tutor or mathematically-inclined friend as soon as possible. Misconceptions and confusions will often need to be cleared up before you can progress, which can’t be left until a last-minute revision session. (If you are seeking a professional tutor online, or face-to-face in Essex or London, you can contact me to discuss booking a session.)

That’s my best advice to pass QTS Numeracy, but what if all plans go awry? Aim to pass first time, but it’s not a disaster if you fail. You get more than one attempt at the test. Don’t rush to rebook; leave enough time to put the work in so you’ll be confident of a clear pass next time. If you’re struggling to meet your training provider’s deadline, contact them ASAP — at least half the time, they are willing to grant an extension. If this is impossible as it’s too close to the course’s commencement date, consider requesting to defer for a year.

In the worst case, if you fail all three attempts, there is a 24-month “lock-out” before you can try again. I’ve worked with people who came to me during their lock-out to arrange a study programme that meant they passed first-time as soon as they were unfrozen — failing three times doesn’t mean you can never pass, but does indicate serious effort is needed! People in this situation who still aim to go into education often spend the lock-out working as a teaching assistant, or working as an instructor (unqualified teacher) in a school. It can set your plans back by two years, and result in low pay in the interim, but it doesn’t have to be the end of your ambition to become a teacher. The most common reason people get into this position is not taking the test seriously enough the first time around, like they would have done if it was an A-level exam or university finals. So to reiterate my first point: pay the test due respect from the start, and it can save you stress and money later!