Hi there tout la gang,

We don't have much to say about research in practice at the Café right now

but we are talking policy and practice over here now: Literacy Enquirers.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Yes ... it is turning into Sue Palmer week. This time we take an excerpt from Time to Teach.

...No one in teaching ever liked targets, but on the whole we went along with them because they were part of the initiative to raise standards, and that was clearly a good and necessary thing – five years ago far too many children were leaving primary school with appalling basic skills. [The] Labour [party]’s thrice repeated education pledge meant a real opportunity to improve literacy and numeracy teaching, including money to help failing readers, and information for teachers about phonics, grammar and spelling – essential elements of literacy that had been neglected for decades. Specific targets for pupil achievement were part of the package, and in the early days perhaps they did help focus schools’ attention and ginger us all up a bit.

And in those first few years we did make progress – gradually the numbers of children achieving the‘average’ score of Level 4 in national tests at age 11 rose from the 50s to the 60s to the 70 percents. So maybe the targets weren’t utterly a bad thing... Carried along by spin and good intentions, we all stuck with it.

As time went on, however, you couldn’t help noticing the ill-effects. Targets seemed to force teachers increasingly to teach to the test, sacrificing the ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ and the emphasis on creativity that’s essential if primary children are to learn. Stress levels throughout the profession rose, as priorities went cock-eyed. Headteachers, government advisers, officials at County Hall all seemed to be rushing around with rising blood-pressure, looking for some philosopher’s stone that would, in the second week of May, turn the base metal of a Level 3 into the shining gold of a Level 4. Some headteachers even tried cheating... statistics were the important thing now... and many excellent primary teachers decided it was time to leave.

Then, last autumn, the 2001 test results were published. Horror! We were no longer making progress. National scores had not improved on last year, and in maths they’d actually dropped.

The DfES did not pause to wonder whether their short-termism might have proved counterproductive. Instead, their response was short-sighted, swift and terrifying: new, tougher targets for 2004 and unprecedented levels of government prescription to meet them. Within weeks they’d developed scripted lesson plans for 11 year olds and published them on the DfES website – what amounts to the first volume of a national textbook. Since most Year 6 teachers have been reduced by all the target nonsense to grovelling wrecks, they’re embracing with tired resignation a level of state interference which, three years ago, would have been unthinkable: “OK, I’ll follow the government lessons to the letter, then no one can blame me if my kids don’t get their Level 4.”

For one who became a primary teacher because of a passionate belief in democracy, this was when panic set in. This was when I started waking in the middle of the night, wild-eyed and shivery, wondering how we’d got here. How had I, and countless other well-meaning teachers and educational professionals, managed to spend three years marching down this terrible educational cul-de-sac? How had we let statistics become more important than children? How had we allowed a focus on short-term solutions – based on a couple of highly questionable national tests – lead to prescribed lessons, stamped with the words ‘Government Approved’? And where might this subtly-crafted culture of dependence take us next....?

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