Could our new tsar be one of us?

7th February 2003 at 00:00
New primary strategy leader Kevan Collins sees himself as 'a teacher' first. He assures Sue Palmer that key stage 2 test scores are not the only thing he cares about

When the news came through that Kevan Collins had been appointed director of the new national primary strategy, I was chatting to a literacy consultant.

"Brilliant," she said. "He's a teacher. He knows all the theory, but he understands about classrooms too."

I've heard similar opinions from those who worked with Dr Collins from the early days of the literacy strategy, where he rose to be deputy director:

"He's a good communicator", "a people-person", "someone who understands the nitty-gritty of teaching".

When I ring him for The TES, he echoes them: "I am a teacher... that's what I am," he says ... and then worries whether that sounds like spin.

You will soon be able to judge for yourself. Kevan Collins' aim for the strategy - which merges the literacy and numeracy strategies - is "to improve the quality of the primary experience for the children".

A strategy that structures the way teachers work is not the enemy of creativity, he says. He praises the recent Ofsted report, The Curriculum in Successful Primary Schools. This, he says, shows you can have a "rich primary experience" that reflects the unique circumstances and culture of each school as well as individual teachers'personalities, while still having "reliable systems and structures to underpin it all". "That document explodes the myth that you can't have both" he says. "And reaching that balance for all schools is the prize."

So how can we spread success? One idea is to create networks of schools "that face similar challenges", but are not necessarily in the same areas.

He recognises that teachers inundated with change will not take kindly to new initiatives, "but it's not about something new and superficial, it's about achieving deeper change." He wants a learning culture that "energises" teachers. "It has a lot to do with leadership, we'll be working a lot with heads."

This is all very well, but what will happen in the classroom? The best achievements of the literacy and numeracy strategies have been in classroom practice. What does the strategy do next?

Dr Collins wants to improve even more how we teach. The easier improvements have been made, he suggests. "Things like the structure of lessons, teaching sequences, interactive teaching. It's now about encouraging more reflective teaching, asking: 'How do I draw children into a lesson? How do I respond to their questions, praise, prompt, probe to take them further? How do I make links between what they're learning today and what they'll do tomorrow?"

He defends dedicated time for literacy and numeracy, but says lessons must not be episodic one-offs.

So far so good. I can't imagine teachers quibbling with his ideals. But Dr Collins has others to satisfy besides teachers: politicians who want evidence of raised standards and want it fast. How will he balance schools' needs with political pressure to hit 2004 targets?

He accepts that test scores do not tell the whole story. "We all know that raising standards is not just about what happens at the end of Year 6. For real qualitative change you need a long-term trajectory, a collegiate effort on behalf of all the staff. Despite appearances, the department recognises this too. They've funded early learning support materials and other initiatives which gave no short-term gains in terms of targets."

But, he points out that, in the real world, ministers need the figures "to show the Treasury, to get continued investment".

He believes it's possible to reconcile his beliefs with the need to "live in the real world". "We've already proved to politicians that investing in teaching and learning works," he says. "If they remain committed to raising standards, we can help more and more children achieve their potential."

Sue Palmer is a freelance teacher trainer and writer

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