Inner-city literacy report was 'slanted'

A senior academic who worked for the Office for Standards in Education on its controversial study of literacy in inner London has admitted the report was given a negative slant in its final draft.

George Smith, an Oxford University lecturer in education research, wrote large parts of last year's study of reading standards in the London boroughs of Southwark, Islington and Tower Hamlets. He told a conference at Newcastle University on Friday that the report was launched "in an uncompromising way that emphasised negative features, with little apparent sympathy for the pressures and problems of working or living in such areas".

While there was no "carefully-w rought plot where data was collected with a particular message in mind", said Mr Smith, "in its final stages the report was firmly positioned to take a more critical stance by those undertaking the final drafting. This particularly included the 'commentary' section, which, it could be argued, is not necessarily limited to the specific findings of the study".

Last May's report has been used to justify the Government's back-to-basics drive, the national curriculum for trainee teachers, league tables for teacher training providers and the reinspection of primary teacher training, as well as repeated Government statements on the importance of phonics in teaching reading.

The report provoked outburst from the three boroughs involved, who accused Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead of rewriting the original draft to present the gloomiest picture. It has generated unprecedented controversy since, and was fiercely attacked in a paper by professors Peter Mortimore and Harvey Goldstein of the London Institute of Education.

Mr Smith defended the report's research and was concerned that the row over the negative spin has tainted the findings. He argued that the report was never intended to be a long-term research project and that the report made clear that it was a study of inner-city primaries - there was no suggestion that its conclusions should be taken to apply to primary schools in general.

Professor Harvey Goldstein, who was also at the conference, reiterated his criticisms of the Government's reliance on OFSTED research in making policy, and warned Labour against going down the same road. He also criticised the report on the value of homework in raising standards produced by Professor Michael Barber in January. The report chose seven schools deemed effective by OFSTED and compared them to seven others not praised by OFSTED but matched for socio-economic factors. He accuses Michael Barber of navety in assuming that because the first schools had more homework, this must explain their success. "The report makes the quite erroneous assumption that OFSTED judgments can be equated with effectiveness ... to judge effectiveness requires long-term longtitudinal data so that progress or value-added estimates can be made; a single inspection report cannot do this." The number of schools studied was also far too small to come to any secure conclusions, he argued.

Last week Professor Goldstein attacked Labour's new literacy document, also written by Michael Barber. He suggested that Labour was attempting to legitimise policy "with research evidence that doesn't exist".

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