The most important feature of the years between 1995 and 2000, when results rose rapidly, was single-minded momentum. Schools were in no doubt that their top priority was the 3Rs. That momentum disappeared as ministers merged the literacy and numeracy strategies into a catch-all primary strategy, and began to give equal emphasis to welfare issues. Of course, primary schools should offer a broad curriculum and care for their pupils' welfare. And they should ensure that pupils who can read get access to plenty of good books.
But the focus of government needs to be clear. After all, those pupils who don't reach level 4 are unlikely to gain five good GCSEs. And without them, they will find it much harder to get a good job or progress to university...... let's not lose sight of why testing and accountability were introduced – too many primary schools assumed that children would acquire the 3Rs through osmosis or their parents. The losers in this lottery were poorer pupils without supportive or fluent parents.
And, given the evidence that rigorous phonics, a sound grasp of grammar and punctuation, and a facility with mental arithmetic are essential building blocks for the 3Rs, governments should not shy away from expecting schools to deliver them. But if government wants schools to do better, it must avoid mixed messages.
Ministers made a big error allowing the abandonment of Labour's literacy and numeracy strategies to be seen as an admission of their failure. And the Tories played a foolish game when they suggested that the Key Stage 2 tests could be replaced by teacher-marked tests in secondary school (they have since indicated that external marking is more likely).
The main reason there has been so little recent progress has been that – with the exception of a renewed focus on phonics – there has been too much muddle over what matters in primary schools. The latest thematic review of the curriculum is in danger of adding to the confusion. But the strategies should not be revived: schools must be held accountable instead for the extent to which they successfully teach the 3Rs, and encouraged to use the best of the available commercial teaching programmes. Ofsted inspections should ensure that children are taught the basics properly, and show how some schools succeed against the odds.
Yet, in the end, the only way that we can know whether individual primary schools are doing their job is through independently set and marked tests. To imagine that our children would be better taught without them is to ignore the lessons of history.
Thursday, 13 August 2009
Don't lose a primary focus on the basics
I have a column in today's Independent, reiterating the case for testing after last week's disappointing Key Stage 2 results. You can read it here. Here's an extract