Not too late for a strategic retreat

Have the national strategies got too much to do? John Bangs is worried about their plans for the next five years

A major consultation has just been concluded. Few can have noticed it. It took place over the Christmas period, concluding less than a month after it was announced. Yet its outcomes affect the professional lives of all teachers, particularly those in primary schools.

The national primary and secondary strategies' five-year plan represents the practical end of the Government's approach to raising standards. The National Union of Teachers managed to respond, and there was much to welcome and to criticise.

No one can argue with the plan's commitment "to develop knowledgeable and reflective practitioners who take ownership and control of their professional development". Nor could anyone but welcome the proposal to foster "the local leadership of the strategies" as well as the proposal "to increase the active engagement of practitioners with the strategies at local level".

But there are real areas of concern. The strategies have far too much to do. Why on earth should the strategies be responsible for the running of the school improvement partner (SIP) scheme? It is fraught with problems, with early evidence that headteachers are far from overjoyed about having critical friends foisted on them as the enforcement arm of the local authority.

Capita, the private firm that took over running the strategies last year, will not be able to remove the conceptual flaws in the scheme. It can only manage them.

The strategies make great play of creating the maximum "challenge and support" for schools in order to meet the Government's targets. The word-order chosen for this phrase is in itself revealing, and is unlikely to inspire confidence within schools.

This obsession with the targets even seems to permeate the strategies'

attitude towards the foundation-stage curriculum guidance. Despite the fact that the guidance explicitly warns against giving over-emphasis to any one of the six areas of learning, the five-year plan cherry-picks just two - literacy and numeracy - presumably to give maximum input to achieving those targets at age 11.

There are other areas in the plan that raise questions. One is the impression that the use of ICT will, of itself, transform teaching and learning, despite the fact that research has yet to provide conclusive evidence of a clear link between achievement and ICT use.

Important as these questions are, the plan raises more fundamental issues.

There is nothing in it that both gives teachers ownership of developments in areas such as literacy and numeracy, nor any idea that teachers' views on what works will filter through the hierarchy to change strategy guidance.

This is a matter of particular concern in relation to the results of the Rose review on early reading, which proposes replacing the literacy strategy's four-pronged Searchlights model (phonics, grammar, word recognition and context) - in which thousands of teachers have been trained - and replacing it at the initial stage of reading with total synthetic phonics.

Can teachers have any confidence that their views on what works will have any influence on that particular juggernaut?

There is also a sense that the strategies are in danger of losing their way. It is 10 years since the Conservative government established what were then the literacy and numeracy projects, with a great buzz of excitement among teachers about being able to contribute their ideas directly to the projects' development.

There was no sense of top-down imposition in the early days. Since then, the strategies have rolled out remorselessly, getting larger and larger like the proverbial snowball.

As this has happened, the Government's professional development strategy, launched in 2001, which provided funding for teachers' individual learning, has quietly keeled over and died when the funds dried up. Indeed, the latest white paper contains little on teachers' professional development, and nothing at all on its funding.

It is probably not the strategies' fault that the plan is as it is. The plan is a reflection of a national failure to achieve a coherent funded approach to teachers' professional development.

Teachers and local authority literacy and numeracy consultants in schools are doing a great job. There have been huge advances in children's achievements in English and maths over the past 10 years - and particularly in the toughest areas.

However, as the Government's strategies evaluator Michael Fullan found, the work of consultants and teachers needs to be embedded through long-term funding and by enabling the profession to own the latest developments in teaching.

What is needed is a continuing focus on professional development in literacy and numeracy, with teachers and local education authorities at the forefront of developments.

The same approach should apply to the rest of teachers' professional development in the arts, humanities, languages and sciences. It is time for a new professional development strategy that has the teaching profession at its centre. Promoting that kind of thinking within the strategies would be a good first step.

One final point: in future, Capita may wish to take note of the code of practice on written consultation, which outlines minimum standards for government departments, including at least a 12-week written consultation period.

The deadline of less than one month - including Christmas and the new year - to respond to such an important document does nothing to support the desire, expressed in the plan, to work in partnership with the teaching profession.

John Bangs is head of education and equal opportunities at the National Union of Teachers

Revitalising push to raise standards

The national strategies' five-year plan sets out goals. It says its approach is based on:

* harnessing local expertise to drive up standards;

* working with "informed professionals" within autonomous schools who wish to contribute to debate with professional learning communities;

* creating excitement about high-quality learning and teaching;

* placing personalised learning at the heart of the strategies, drawing on good practice evidence, assessment forlearning and an inclusive approach to raising attainment for all pupils;

* integrating school improvement with inclusion.

The strategies say they seek to bring a "new dynamism" to raising achievement and to improve coherence between central and local initiatives.

The plan says this should minimise the bureaucratic burden on schools, early-years settings and local authorities and maximise co-operation through integrated planning and delivery.

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