Every child's basic skills count and we should all get involved

25th May 2007 at 01:00
Geoff Barton is Headteacher At King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Politicians are always keen for us to clamber into the sandpit with the big boys of the educational world.

"We are still some way off from being world class," the Chancellor said last week as he surveyed standards in mathematics. "It is unacceptable that we still have 150,000 children leaving primary school who aren't numerate."

Gordon Brown's solution? A rejuvenated maths strategy called - naturally - Every Child Counts. He has promised to find pound;35 million to ensure that by 2010 more than 300,000 at-risk pupils a year benefit from one-to-one tuition in maths, with 30 to 40 hours a year for those with greatest need. An army of maths mentors - some of them university students - will be deployed to raise standards.

While teacher unions have given this a cautious welcome - it is hard to argue that giving money to schools is a bad idea - it is predictable that our first reaction in schools is one of suspicion. We inevitably wonder whether this is money that has already been announced and stashed away in the darker recesses of our existing budgets, or whether it is genuinely new funding.

It is worth pausing before we start doom-mongering. Despite our apparent instinct to rubbish our own education system at every opportunity, the statistics for the past 10 years speak well of the Government's achievements. We might not yet be stepping out with the international high-flyers of Scandinavia and the Far East, but in the basics we are doing considerably better than we were.

The percentage of pupils getting level 4 in key stage 2 tests has risen from around 55 per cent to around 75 per cent, while the trend in reading and writing has been consistently upward. In writing at KS2, for example, we have moved from 53 per cent of pupils achieving level 4-plus in 1997 to 67 per cent in 2006.

The problem is that the level of achievement is still not good enough.

Gaining level 4 or higher at KS2 and level 5 or higher at KS3 is a significant predictor of being able to gain a clutch of good GCSE grades at 16. Against that international benchmark, we are about as successful as Scootch in the Eurovision song contest. Which is why the Government rightly gets twitchy when progress in national tests appears to falter.

So, if we agree on the symptoms, is Mr Brown's prescription - catch-up classes and a phalanx of mentors - the best approach?

Experience tells us that when we focus determinedly on the things that matter, with targeted resources in support, then we can make an impact. The national strategy's attention to writing demonstrates this. It also shows the importance of teachers who can teach with confidence and skill.

The danger of Mr Brown's approach is that it is another bolt-on measure.

Rather than freeing up the primary curriculum to inject room for creativity and inspiration, plus a focus on securing the basics of reading, writing and mathematics, we run the risk of another distraction. It is not that it is a bad idea. We know children often learn most effectively from people nearer to them in age; but it can only be part of a solution.

Then there is the wider cultural issue. It is all very well comparing our performance with countries where expectations and aspirations are very different. When Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, asked one primary teacher what he needed to raise standards, his reply was simple: "A class full of Vietnamese children."

It may be that one of the most important acts our new Prime Minister could make would be to remind parents and carers of their role in helping their children get the basics right - by regularly talking, reading, listening and doing maths with them.

If Britain is going to make it into the international first class lounge, then it will take the involvement of all of us, both within and beyond the school gates.

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