All aboard the literacy liferaft;Platform;Opinion

24th April 1998 at 01:00
Labour's newstrategy should be seen as a saviour, not a strait-jacket, says Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector

Will the national literacy strategy really straitjacket the creativity of individual teachers? It will not. The suggestion that the timings of the literacy hour have to be obeyed with stopwatch precision and that the aim is to make "an identical pattern of lesson plans I obligatory for all" is a classic example of Ted Wragg at his most mischievous (Last Word, TES, April 3) and, if this is the view of the NUT, the union at its most determinedly paranoiac.

The timings, as Professor Wragg well knows, are indicative. As to what happens in the hour, well, you only have to look at the framework. "Teachers', the text says, "will need to use a wide range of teaching strategies." It is left very much to the individual teacher to decide what use is made of which strategies and when.

If the "macro-strategy" were dogmatic and inflexible, then I would be the first (odd though the liaison might be) to join Ted on the barricades. It is not, as the Prime Minister once put it, "up to central government to prescribe classroom organisation in 25,000 schools. Professional judgment according to local circumstances is important." It is more than important. It is crucial. The last thing anyone wants is for 440,000 teachers to have to dance to the tune of the same draconian Napoleonic code.

The national literacy strategy is not, though, a Napoleonic code. It steers a careful line between the vague generalisations characteristic of so much recent curriculum documentation and dictatorial prescription. As a consequence, it will be of real practical use. There is, moreover, another side to the argument. This is that it is ridiculous for 25,000 schools to seek their individual solutions to common problems.

It is worse than ridiculous. It is, as we were reminded over Easter, exhausting. It is demoralising and demotivating. It means that teachers across the country are having to burn the midnight oil drafting policies and schemes of work when they should be thinking about how best to bring their lessons alive for their particular pupils. The notion of the autonomous teacher reflecting in splendid isolation on best professional practice is a romantic but highly dangerous myth.

It is dangerous because we know from test and examination data that it has never worked. Too many children leave primary school with reading ages significantly below their chronological age. We know, too, that many teachers do not think that their training has equipped them with the knowledge and skill they need if they are to teach (often in the most unpropitious of circumstances) their children to read. Is it surprising that morale in some schools is too low? Bombarded by competing theories expounded by different experts and criticised in the press for not achieving satisfactory results, is it surprising that many teachers have not known where to turn? In teaching, as in every other sphere of life, if you know that you lack the necessary knowledge and skill, your confidence and ultimately your self respect will, inevitably, grow increasingly fragile.

The national literacy strategy is less a Stalinist imposition, more a liferaft. It does not surprise me in the least that the response from the profession generally has been so warm.

I have two basic responsibilities as chief inspector of schools. The first is to deliver a system of inspections that describes the strengths and weaknesses of schools in an honest and accurate way. The second is to ensure that Government, education authorities, and, above all, the teaching profession understand what the inspection evidence tells us about the effectiveness of different teaching methods.

I make no apology for speaking clearly about problems in individual schools and the system as a whole. Problems, after all, need to be exposed before solutions can ever be found. If, however, the Office for Standards in Education were to fail to play its part in the definition and dissemination of effective practice, then I would feel very guilty indeed.

Teachers need support. They need tightly-defined definitions of approaches which really work in the sense that they solve day-to-day classroom problems. Pious exhortation and vapid generalisations are hopeless. For too long we have been too precious in our deliberations about professional autonomy. Academics agonise; teachers teach. The latter do not always want to wend their lonely way to their individual holy grail. They have lives to live out of school, children to play with, hobbies to pursue.

OFSTED will continue to publicise just as clearly as we can the key lessons from inspection and I hope that Government will continue to listen and to act upon our advice. I am happy to leave each school to come to its own decisions about how exactly the literacy hour is to be implemented. I want, though, these decisions to be properly informed and I believe that those schools that choose to reject a proven methodology and then fail to meet the Government's targets should be held sharply to account. Above all, I want teachers to have access to a literacy programme which will raise standards and reduce their workload. Some might mock. It seems the only sensible way forward.

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