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Ministers should insist on the basics... then back off

It's not exactly a week for hanging out the bunting. Like prisoners on some early release scheme, national test results for key stages 2 and 3 are out. And while ministers have dutifully uttered words of hesitant praise, it's all a bit underwhelming. Last week schools minister Andrew Adonis welcomed the "best set of KS2 results we have ever seen". This week, his ministerial colleague Jim Knight said: "KS3 results are consistent with the overall picture over the last decade, which continues to be one of unprecedented improvements."

The trouble is that progress at the start of that decade was significantly faster than it has been in the past three years. If this was a 10-year-old car, we'd have traded it in by now.

At KS2, results have shown a slight improvement of 1 per cent in English, maths and science. But the performance of 600,000 pupils paints a picture of painfully slow improvement, with little change in the past three years. The targets set for 2006 for English and maths have still not been reached. Meanwhile the proportion of 14-year-olds in England reaching the required standard in maths tests actually fell slightly. There was an increase of 1 per cent in the proportion of pupils meeting English and science standards to 74 per cent and 73 per cent, respectively. But the Government had set a target of 85 per cent reaching level 5 by this year.

This is all gloomy news, but we need to keep it in perspective rather than work ourselves into one of our regular binges of national doom-mongering. The tests are only interim progress reports, after all. But nor should we slip back into the churning waters of complacency and deceive ourselves that good enough is good enough. Anyone familiar with what a pupil has to be able to do to achieve a level 4 at KS2, a level 5 at KS3 or a handful of grade Cs at 16 can't really believe that with determination and innovation we couldn't do significantly better.

As the architects of the national literacy strategy, John Stannard and Laura Huxford remind us in their new book, The Literacy Game: The Story of the National Literacy Strategy, that the original combination of a robust philosophy (especially for teaching reading and writing) plus a clear programme for delivery had a major impact. Then, in its second term, it was as if the Government lost its nerve, worried about cries of over-prescription and was buffeted by different issues and other priorities, since when we have been becalmed.

So what's to be done? The Government should be absolutely explicit in saying that reading, writing, numeracy and ICT are the essential skills that all pupils need to have consolidated by 14. This should be a non-negotiable expectation of all schools. Then they should back off. Hold schools accountable by all means for the ability to deliver the basics to all pupils, including the most vulnerable and the most gifted. Build on the good work of the national strategies team in helping to increase teachers' knowledge of which approaches have an impact in the classroom. But stop meddling. Stop tweaking performance tables by suddenly adding in science or languages targets. Stop making pronouncements about what should and shouldn't be taught. Keep things simple.

This would require huge self-restraint from Westminster, a mixture of faith in schools to trade off a razor-like focus on the basics with freedom to innovate within a light-touch curriculum. It would need public recognition that developing young people, unlike turning out products in a factory, needs time and care. But the grand pay-off would be a sense of developing the talents of pupils who now feel hemmed in by an over-prescriptive curriculum, of enabling teachers to feel less guilty if they take a few pedagogical risks, and regaining momentum in raising standards. Progress would then come about for the right reasons as a result of good teaching and learning. How old fashioned is that?

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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