Save them from the boring literacy hour

David Winkley

Will the Government's primary strategy go far enough? David Winkley kicks off the debate with his suggestions for a radical overhaul of the whole system

There has been a downside to the steamrollering intervention in primary education by successive governments. There are fewer poor schools now than a decade ago, and there are signs of higher attainments - at least on test performance - in literacy and numeracy.

But at a conference last week, a chair of governors from a school highly rated by the Office for Standards in Education, confided in me that her own two children, in her own school, had become increasingly bored, groaning at one more literacy hour, another practice test. She reflects a growing parental concern.

A new primary strategy needs to accept that the 1990s standardisation agenda downplayed two clusters of facts. First, that the most important educative influence is the family, whose health and socio-economic status is clearly linked to educational success. League tables are largely demographic surveys.

Second, that primary schooling is markedly understaffed, with one of the the poorest teacher-pupil ratios of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, a third worse than ratios in our secondary schools.

Our strategy must start by re-focusing on the importance of working with families, with particularly strong support for the 0-5s. And in primary schools, child-teacher ratios and administrative support for teachers must improve significantly.

Then we must take note that in the 21st century, public services are expected to take more account of diversity and difference, and that individuals as "consumers" will have greater expectations.

This has radical implications for virtually every other aspect of primary policy. Instead of thinking of children in cohorts at key stages, with pupils mass-tested to ensure conformity to pre-defined standards, we will need to think of them as individuals with entitlements, whose distinctive talents are properly identified and enhanced.

The search for individual pupil potential will require more refined diagnosis and assessment, improved specialist teaching, closer relationships with secondary colleagues and a reappraisal of the one teacher to one age-related class.

Schools will still be expected to maintain a baseline of achievement, and there will need to be a concerted national effort to crack the problems of endemic underperformers - some 20 to 25 per cent of children. This will mean identifying their emotional and special needs more urgently, with the involvement of health and social services.

Standardised tests used as benchmarks might still provide pieces of the total picture of each child's progress, as we identify emergent talents or problems, but mass-testing and league tables will look crudely old-fashioned.

In a digital world the aim should be a laptop for all. Children would have various hands-on opportunities in the arts and sports as of right. These would extend into their real lives and might include camping, dance or drama, ceramics, singing in a choir, learning a musical instrument and a second language.

As all this cannot be fitted into a 25-hour week, out-of-school learning will, as in Sweden and Japan, become more central to the child's learning programme, with schools open at weekends and in the holidays offering a variety of courses.

Finally, we need to look again at the quality of the child's classroom experience, with better feedback to counter growing pupil - and teacher - boredom. Teaching needs to be consistently exciting, of the highest quality, based (perhaps with help from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and other providers) on excellent planning of programmes developed and monitored at school level, with teachers given more flexibility to explore what they feel they do best.

And there are implications here for the currently overly-constrained teacher-training courses. Enterprising schools are already developing their own programmes, evaluated by teachers, outside assessors and the pupils themselves.

Our new strategy must contribute to a renewed sense of joy in teaching and learning.

The cumulative aim will be to re-state the primacy of the potential of the primary school, which Eric Midwinter once said was at its best the most supremely civilised of all human communities.

Sir David Winkley is president of the National Primary Trust.The NPT's international conference, My Future Our World, will be held in Telford from June 18-20. Details from

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David Winkley

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