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Beware the myth-makers

Colin Richards unpicks alarming reports about poor quality teaching in primary schools. Primary education is the subject of much political, professional and parental interest. The Government has identified primary (and nursery) education as a major focus in its concern to raise standards. In a recent lecture Sir Claus Moser, who chaired the National Commission on Education, has cited primary education as a "crisis priority" for the next government and has argued persuasively for a substantial shift in funding towards the sector.

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools in his last annual report has criticised "too many schools" for "failing to give their pupils a satisfactory education" and has claimed that "it is evident that overall standards of pupil achievement need to be raised in about half of primary schools".

Beginning with the Plowden Report of 1967 primary education has often been subject to myth-making but never more so than now. One prominent current myth is of a system where children are not being taught how to read, write and calculate, where principles of right and wrong are not being inculcated and where standards of achievement are falling. This is in marked contrast to the myth of 30 years ago when English primary education was claimed to be "the best in the world" and said to be characterised by spontaneity, creativity, discovery, integration and the pursuit of children's interests.

Both kinds of myths are dangerous, over-simplified fabrications. The reality is much more prosaic. It is of a system under-funded and under-appreciated compared with secondary and higher education, a system which from 1988 has been bombarded with a multiplicity of changes introduced too quickly, and a system of almost 20,000 schools and 200,000 teachers varying widely in quality, more concerned with coping with the national curriculum than with subverting it and all too conscious that the "core business" is the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

Taken as a whole primary education is neither "trendy" nor "archaic". It is a large-scale enterprise operating reasonably efficiently and effectively in a difficult climate. A realistic appraisal of the standards it achieves gives no cause for complacency but neither does it suggest a parlous state of affairs requiring desperate or special measures.

Take first the issue of children's standards of achievement. Inspections carried out under the auspices of the Office for Standards in Education reveal that in 1994-95 four-fifths or more of lessons in each national curriculum subject were satisfactory or better. Standards were highest in nursery classes (where more than 90 per cent of sessions were judged at least satisfactory) and lowest in classes for junior pupils, though even here standards were satisfactory or good in about four-fifths of lessons.

To focus on the vexed issue of reading standards, children's reading competence was judged to be less than satisfactory in about 10 per cent of schools, including only 2 per cent, one in 50, where they were poor. A similar picture emerges in relation to numeracy. These findings cannot be cited to justify a general crisis in standards in English primary schools, though they do point to a small but significant minority with unacceptable standards and where remedial measures are necessary.

Second is the perennial issue of whether standards are rising or falling. Amazingly, there is no recent national evidence on this matter. The education system's track record on monitoring changes in achievement is not a good one, though paradoxically better in the past than at present despite the current pre-occupation with accountability. On four occasions between 1955 and 1977 a reading test was administered to a national sample of 11-year-olds and revealed a rise in standards over that period. Between 1978 and 1988 the Government's Assessment of Performance Unit (now sadly defunct) found that standards of achievement remained much the same in most aspects of maths and English, with improvement in some areas and decline in others.

The introduction of national curriculum assessment from 1991 should have provided information on this issue but because of year-on-year changes in Government policy and in test details no conclusions are available.

It will not be possible to draw even tentative conclusions about changes in the performance of 11-year-olds until late 1997, some eight years after the initial introduction of the national curriculum!

Although research and test data cannot yet throw light on recent changes in standards, evidence from HMI reports suggests that standards in so-called "basic skills" have not declined over the last decade; indeed there is some evidence of improvement in history, geography and science. These findings give no cause for great concern - or for complacency.

A third, and very important, aspect refers to standards in the "public life" of schools, classrooms and playgrounds. In OFSTED inspections the vast majority of primary schools are judged favourably or very favourably for children's behaviour, attendance, attitudes to learning and social and moral development.

This is no mean achievement for primary teachers given the deteriorating social fabric in many areas of the country. This is not to deny the problems caused by a small minority of disruptive children, but almost all primary schools are orderly communities with a strong sense of what is right and wrong.

I suspect this picture comes close to how most parents perceive their own child's primary school but is far removed from their perception of a national system of primary education in dire straits. The discrepancy is disheartening for hard-pressed teachers too often made scapegoats by those anxious to denigrate rather than evaluate achievement. Misleading portraits of primary standards and practice, as in this year's annual report from the Chief Inspector, fuel myth-making and serve neither truth nor justice.

* Colin Richards was formerly OFSTED'S specialist adviser for primary education

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