A strategy too far?

25th May 2001 at 01:00
Iain MacDonald voices his concerns about the key stage 3 literacy framework

The Key Stage 3 National Strategy Framework landed on my desk as we were moderating GCSE coursework and playing pin the tail on the estimated grade for the new AS levels. It has been interesting to follow the debate over the past 12 months, and to watch the tone, content and presentation of the strategy subtly alter. I'm a traditionalist where grammar teaching is concerned, and you might expect me to be looking forward eagerly to this prescribed banquet of linguistic rigour, but I'm not. My principal reservations are:

* The KS3 National Literacy Strategy Framework is impractical in the range of its ambitions. A strategy that restricted itself to a manageable range of basic points of sentence and text structure, or focused resources on those who had significant difficulty with reading would be more likely to succeed in raising achievement across the board.

* The strategy usurps the recently revised and legally enforceable national curriculum. Aside from the point of principle, there is a practical issue, as the architects of the Framework appear to have crammed the bulk of the secondary English Order into KS3. As most schools have difficulty meeting the range of requirements of the Order over five years, it is difficult to see how it can be successfully implemented over three years.

* The methodology recommended, which gives the KS2 literacy hour its pace and challenge, is not new to KS3, but it is draining for the practitioner. Anyone who did a secondary PGCE course knows that a clear structure, well-chosen resources, closely monitored group work and a recap of learning points makes for a dynamic and effective lesson that the students enjoy. Unfortunately such teaching cannot be sustained. Until more non-contact time is built into the curriculum, English teachers will only survive by making judicious use of videos, silent reading and timed essays.

* The time implications are daunting. Schools should, according to the draft Framework, provide three to four hours of English teaching a week. But the national curriculum recommendation is 10 per cent of curriculum time, which is more like two and a half hours. It is unclear where the extra time is to come from. The medium-term planning that is an important feature of the strategy is not as simple as is made out, and comes on top of other time-consuming government initiatives, such as New Opportunities Fund ICT training and new sixth-form courses.

* The strategy is likely to have a negative effect on retention. Where are all the literacy consultants coming from, if not out of the classrooms? Are they not likely to be the more dyamic and successful English teachers? Who has replaced them? Some teachers will see this as an initiative too far, and will jump for the independent sector or leave the profession altogether.

* The statistics used to justify extending the strategy to KS3 (a 10 per cent rise in level 4s over three years) are inadequate evidence of improved literacy. English SATs marking is notoriously unreliable, and year-on-year results for individual schools, certainly at KS3, show wild fluctuations. Even if we accept the improved KS2 results at face value, the reason is more likely to be the heavy coaching for the tests that junior schools understandably engage in to protect their positions in the league tables.

* The strategy is part of a wider picture of target-driven and data-led evaluation that already has too tight a grip on our schools. Monitoring through objective analysis has a place, but the current mesh of statistics and league tables has little to do with education as the term is understood by those genuinely committed to the ideal. English has traditionally been one of the havens within the national curriculum where there is room to be creative, discursive, and student led, where a lesson that starts off looking at a sonnet and ends in heated discussion of the word "gay" can be considered a success rather than a failure. The strategy proposed for KS3 will compromise this flexibility.

* The strategy is developing a momentum that makes criticism as socially unacceptable as pointing out that the king is naked. (Witness the Department for Education and Employment's response recently to suggestions that KS2 SATs were getting easier.) The literacy strategy has become the main concern of English advisers, publishers and in-service training providers. Ministers have staked their careers on it and top civil servants write of it to headteachers in tones of near-religious fervour. It plays well with parents and an election is around the corner. It is important that those with reservations about the strategy's value air them now.

I support in principle the goals of structure, rigour and an increased understanding of the mechanical aspects of English. Perhaps there are still schools which still fall short of these ideals. But in the many schools where English teaching is vital, rigorous and effective, with an appropriate blend of the formal and the creative, it is surely better left to flourish without interference. Better still, give those schools the time they need to become even better. Such a strategy I could cheerfully endorse.

Iain MacDonald is head of English at Bishop Vesey's grammar school, Sutton Coldfield.E-mail: macdonald@sancreed40.fsnet.co.uk

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