'Ministers should look to Cuba as much as Southeast Asia for tips on improving literacy'

1st December 2016 at 12:30
Literacy skills
The government should be wary of positioning itself as being in charge of a system needing urgent reform when other ailing systems appear to be making greater progress, writes one education journalist

You may not have noticed it because it fell on a good day to bury bad news rather than a bad day to promote good news, but the education standards watchdog Ofsted released statistics showing a marked improvement in the number of "good" and "outstanding" schools on the day chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond published his autumn statement.

The number of primary schools rated good or outstanding was up by six percenage points to 90 per cent while the number of secondary schools rose by four percentage points to 78 per cent.

I would put part of the reason for this down to the decision by the chief schools inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, earlier in his reign, to ban the use of the term "satisfactory" to describe a school and replace it with "requires improvement".

No-one wants to be in charge of a school that requires improvements yet - in days gone past - it was perfectly acceptable to be in charge of a satisfactory school.

It would have been the perfect opportunity for ministers to trumpet the success of their school reforms.  Doubtless many of the improving schools are academies - even though earlier statistics suiggests local authority maintained schools are likely to make a quicker exit from the category "inadequate" than academies.

The government though, is not in self-congratulatory mode at the moment.  It is still trying to drum up support for prime minister Theresa May's plan to increase selection by saying there are still too many schools not giving their pupils a good education.

Indeed, the thrust of Mr Hammond's message on education in his autumn statement was that there would be more money for grammar schools to expand. It will have to watch itself. 

While the Conservatives have been in office for only six years (mostly in tandem with the Liberal Democrats) compared with the 13 years of the Thatcher and Major administrations, I can well remember that the concerns voiced by Gillian Shephard over the need to improve standards in the basics - numeracy and literacy - brought forth the response: "Well, you've been in power for 13 years perhaps it's time to get someone in who will."

(Indeed, Chris Woodhead, then chief schools inspector and a man whose political home was more with the right wing of the Conservative party than any other, hardly helped the cause of his natural bedfellows by exposing the lack of improvement in the basics in the run-up to the 1997 election.)

Sometimes it is just not smart - as well as being plain wrong - to position yourself as being in charge of an ailing system that needs urgent reform.

World leaders are still bickering about the legacy that Cuba's president Fidel Castro has left behind him - Corbyn "a hero", Trump "a murderous revolutionary".

One achievement they cannot deny is the effort towards improving literacy in the country - it now stands at virtually 100 per cent.

Cuba is, of course, outside of the group of OECD nations that qualify to have their standards of literacy rated by the PISA exercise - which will be published next week.  If it did qualify, it would likely achieve a ranking which would allow it to qualify among those far eastern countries oft visited by UK politicians in the quest to improve standards here at home.

Imagine it: Michael Gove leading a high-powered team of literacy experts to visit Cuba. I'd be up for it. Especially if they organised it during the winter.

Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years and has been writing about education for more than three decades.

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