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Basic skills need positive climate

A plea for an independent review of teaching basic skills was made last week by Alan Wells, director of the Government-funded Basic Skills Agency (BSA). He told a teachers' conference that objective information was needed to discover whether standards were improving and which methods worked and which did not.

"Too much of what passes for evidence is anecdotal or speculative; too much research into method is not objective," said Mr Wells. "And unless we get away from every suggestion or proposal being seen, rightly or wrongly, as part of a not very well hidden agenda, deterioration is much more likely than improvement."

He said that a review could do much to engender a positive climate of co-operation and consensus, which existed in other countries and should exist here.

Mr Wells was speaking to teachers whose schools had received local initiative grants from the BSA to improve standards of literacy or numeracy. Out of 550 applications, 103 schools in 60 education authorities were awarded grants ranging from Pounds 1,140 to the maximum of Pounds 12,500.

He said no one knew if standards had declined; the problem was not new, nor was it confined to this country. It was clear that the goal-posts kept moving as the level of competence acceptable at one time became inadequate.

He joked that one of his great achievements was the increase in the estimated number of people needing help with basic skills. When he started his job in 1975, it was 1 million, now it's 6 million: "I hope to get it up to 10 million by the end of the decade.

"There are no magic bullets or a quick fix for a complex problem of long-standing. But effort, commitment and enthusiasm will have more impact than a host of 'wheeze a week' ideas, which tend to permeate education at the moment."

The initiatives are mainly targeted at Year 7 children. Research released by the BSA last week showed that one-third of children going into secondary school were two years behind in reading. And more than one-third said they needed extra help with maths.

At Queen Elizabeth school, Manchester, numeracy is being targeted as the school has already completed a successful literacy project. This will concentrate on cross-curricular ways of teaching and learning. In Dene school, Thornaby-on-Tees, which aspires to become a "reading town", the money will help family literacy schemes, a reading club and work with libraries and parents.

The agency is considering whether to award schools a quality mark for their basic skills work as it does for colleges and adult education centres. The institutions have to show they meet 12 criteria, including a student's right to assessment, accreditation and staff qualified in basic skills teaching.

Jim Pateman, the BSA's senior development officer, said the mark was seen as helpful in raising standards. It was not a league table but a recognition of reaching a threshold, like a driving test. But it might be seen by some schools as a stigma in that they would be admitting that they had low-level students.

But the audience response was enthusiastic. "An excellent idea, it will show what a difference we make to our pupils - a refreshing alternative to league tables," said a deputy head from the North-east.

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