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Straws in the wind

Nobody is pretending that the Secondary Heads Association survey indicating falling attainment at 11 is the last word in psychometrics. Its claim that the intake scores are declining in two-thirds of comprehensives and a third of independent schools rests on an extrapolation from a haphazard and self-selected sample of one in 10 secondary schools.

The secondary heads emphasise that no blame attaches to their primary colleagues who, they say, were confused and overburdened by the Mark I, 10 subject national curriculum and prevented from maintaining basic standards. Though much of the testing on which SHA bases this assertion was designed to indicate pupils' underlying abilities rather than curricular attainment, few deny the probable truth behind it: that whatever else primary children may be learning, there has been a noticeable decline in the basics, particularly in literacy, at secondary transfer.

Certainly Gillian Shephard was apparently ready to respond with a new Pounds 5 million project aimed at improving teaching of literacy and numeracy in primary schools. It is more likely, however, that this was motivated by OFSTED finding that standards of reading are unsatisfactory in one in 10 junior schools and that one in four have considerable problems with at least one aspect of writing.

There is less unanimity about the causes of these deficiencies, however. SHA's culprit - curriculum obesity - may be the least worrying if the Dearing diet has slimmed demands sufficiently. But the national curriculum also places greater emphasis within English on speaking and listening. So is some concomitant reduction in reading and writing inevitable or are such skills complementary?

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, who helped to concoct both versions of the curriculum, blames primary teachers' lack of expertise in basic skills teaching, over-reliance on individual work denying children in whole-class teaching, and failure to diagnose and correct pupils' difficulties.

Others point to social, demographic or cultural factors. Just as when a series of local authority test results suggested a decline in reading standards, there are suggestions now of a growing polarisation between better off, better supported children and those disadvantaged by homes and schools that are poorer in material or morale. If that is true, what does it tell us about the effective targeting of remedial measures? Are struggling schools the problem or struggling families? Should we be improving teaching or involving parents more?

SHA has done a public service by highlighting these concerns again. But its analysis does not answer such questions. Straws in the wind may show which way it is blowing. But the national curriculum, and the context in which it has been introduced, demands a more thorough evaluation. Neither OFSTED nor the national curriculum's own tests, designed for another purpose, can tell us what children have learnt and how that differs from what they knew in the past. The Government scrapped its own Assessment of Performance Unit which could have helped answer some of these questions. If the SHA survey shows nothing else, it is that it is time to repeat the systematic light-sampling of children's basic skills to establish whether the national curriculum has improved matters and how it could do so further.

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