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Learning curve goes full circle;Talkback

The literacy hour packs are not only expensive, they are patronising, writes Mike Kent

My school consistently gets good national test results in literacy, although we are in an area of great social deprivation. But, despite our record, I was recently sent an expensive "literacy pack" and am now obliged to send three members of staff on a two-day training course.

Musing that the cost of half a dozen of these weighty literacy packs could buy us a lot of badly needed library books, and that a pack has been sent to every primary school in the land, my language co-ordinator wondered how we had come to this. Having been in the profession for a long time, I can see exactly how, but what seems so extraordinary is that our learning curve for literacy has gone in a complete circle.

I became a headteacher in the early Eighties, inheriting a school which, like many, had suffered badly from a lack of learning structure. The level of literacy was appalling, the standard of behaviour worrying, and the curriculum haphazard. There was, however, a nucleus of recently appointed teachers anxious to do something about the children who still couldn't read properly, even though they were middle juniors. A special "skills unit" was set up; children were withdrawn from classes regularly, given an intensive course on essential reading skills such as phonics, and gradually fed back into mainstream classes.

The inspectorate was not pleased, believing that withdrawal groups would stigmatise children. Furthermore, we were teaching phonics, giving spelling lists and using reading schemes. These were deadly sins. Instead, our money should have been spent on creating book corners filled with "real books".

In the Eighties, a talented teacher called Liz Waterland wrote a short book in which she described setting up an alternative route to reading in her school. Deciding that most reading schemes were dull and repetitive, she'd done away with them and bought in a large and varied collection of books that the children found much more interesting. She had, in effect, created an alternative reading scheme, which was publicised widely.

Her idea was quickly misinterpreted, particularly by the inspectorate. Reading schemes - even those that were actually entertaining and well-regarded - went out of fashion, and "real books" were in. Any teacher caught using a reading scheme, or teaching phonics, could kiss promotion goodbye. My own school, which kept a good reading scheme backed up with a range of interesting additional material, was suddenly labelled a "formal" school.

There was a spin-off into writing, too. Teaching grammar wasn't important any more, but the "flow" of writing was. The child's work was sacrosanct, and teachers weren't supposed to mark or criticise it, the view being that this would demoralise the child.

Ultimately, of course, the national curriculum arrived, for all sorts of reasons, not the least of them being that secondary schools found themselves admitting children who couldn't read or write properly.

The first set of folders containing all the elements of the primary curriculum was daunting, but brought a sense of security for both teachers and parents. This was, I suspect, the prototype for the literacy hour pack. There are video tapes, audio tapes, modules, overhead projector slides, photocopiable resources and plenty of reading. So much, in fact, that I'd need to take my staff to a desert island for a few months if we wanted to absorb it all properly.

The pack could undoubtedly help a school that is directionless, badly run and with poor literacy standards - though I can't understand why such a school couldn't be targeted by inspectors or advisers. Many other schools, like ours, don't want or need these expensive packs; we're capable of sorting out our own literacy schemes.

It's all so patronising. Teachers are supposed to be trained professionals, but one module suggests giving a quiz to staff, asking them to choose reasons, from a list, why literacy is so important. One of these is "Because it helps working-class children to get a job". We don't talk down to children, so why are we being talked down to?

For me, though, the final irony is in the video. There, in living colour, is one of the inspectors who, all those years ago, was telling us not to teach phonics or have literacy withdrawal groups. If we hadn't been pressured by the self-styled literacy experts in the Eighties, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in now.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, Camberwell, south London

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