Gamble on the future

30th January 1998 at 00:00
Jim Sweetman believes that the National Literacy Strategy, despite laudable aims, has a seriously flawed methodology

From September, the pedagogy of primary teaching is to be altered to an unimaginable extent. The curriculum for key stages 1 and 2 is to be abandoned, art and music are to receive another body blow and the concept of curriculum progression from 5-16 is to be overturned.

Of course new governments introduce change, and there is nothing wrong with even radical change so long as it is preceded by research, testing and discussion. However, that is not the case with the National Literacy Strategy. Its prototype, the National Literacy Project, has run for under a year and has never been evaluated. It was born out of the Office for Standards in Education's politically-motivated research into reading in the London boroughs which used evidence from the most socially deprived areas to argue that the teaching of reading was in disarray and that whole-class teaching and phonics were the only solution.

Those with long memories will recall how OFSTED edited the report and excluded the local authorities involved when presenting its findings, and how the London Institute of Education critically dismantled its methodology.

Public discussion over the National Literacy Strategy has been limited for several reasons. The first is its evangelical nature, which conspires to include believers and exclude critics.

The framework was first presented to LEAs in 1997 as tablets of stone. It simply stated that standards of literacy were in decline and that better standards were associated with an increase in direct teaching time, the systematic teaching of phonics, spelling and vocabulary at key stage 1 and the systematic teaching of extended reading skills at key stage 2.

Faced with the "facts", some of the teachers in the LEAs taking part in the first schemes capitulated while others were undoubtedly converted. As with all new religions and cults, a precondition of membership is the stripping away of bad habits. In 1997, it was better to be in than out.

Another reason why the project was not critically discussed was that it offered local authorities money and, for the first time in almost 10 years, a realistic educational challenge. In these circumstances, it was inconceivable that directors and advisers would dare to question it.

So,what does the evidence from the National Literacy Strategy itself say about its real ambitions?

All the documentation starts by setting out what literate children should be able to do by the end of key stage 2. But this is where alarm bells start ringing, because these quite reasonable statements re-orientate the national curriculum in English substantially. The question has to be raised as to whether this is the appropriate way to revise a curriculum that was so carefully worked over by experts, put out to rigorous consultation and, finally, widely approved of.

The strategy goes on to set out its aim - 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching Level 4 in English by 2002. Again, few would argue with the right to set such a target but, then, the methodology kicks in.

Standards will be raised by "improving school management of literacy", "setting clear expectations", "improving the quality of teaching" and "assisting" local authorities. All of a sudden, we know where we are - this is OFSTED territory.

This could become direction, supervision and inspection by the back door, and it starts with Chris Woodhead's deficit model of the typical primary school - rounded, not sharp-edged, easy-going rather than structured, affective not effective, more female than male - perhaps not too far removed from OFSTED's notion of the "incompetent" primary teacher!

So, the implicit argument is that schools suffer from poor management and teaching and set low expectations (more OFSTED-speak) and that is why the situation needs direction and rigour. The strategy's answer is objectives.

However, too many of its objectives are, in practice, imperatives. "All classes must teach literacy for one hour per day of continuous, dedicated time" and, to become competent, schools are "required" to "conduct a self-evaluation", "set targets", "attend training conferences", "organise staff training" and "establish monitoring procedures".

Here, the vocabulary is taken from the school improvement movement but the element of regulation and duress sets it apart. The point about target-setting in schools is that to be successful it has to be, first, school-based and, second, signed up to by those involved as they are given ownership of the means to do better. Ten years of good practice underlines this observation but the National Literacy Strategy is in danger of operating a model of prescribed improvement and stealing the words of a genuinely useful and proven strategy for managing change in schools.

The mechanism for changing teacher pedagogy is the "literacy hour". This daily allocation is divided into three strands based on work in reading and writing at text, sentence and word level. The time is broken up into percentages of whole class (80 per cent) and group (20 per cent) teaching and is partitioned by the minute. Over the week and the term, a specific programme is to be followed. The strategy makes clear that "training courses will provide guidance, in the form of detailed examples of teaching tasks and activities".

That means teachers will be told what to teach and how to teach it and, because the "literacy hour gives a focus for literacy teaching throughout the school", it provides a model for teaching across the curriculum, or what remains of it once the numeracy hour has been added. The small print in the framework is equally disturbing. How to deal with phonemes, for example, is broken up into 11 elements. This kind of detail was resisted in the English curriculum because it was thought to lead to bad classroom practices, but now it resurfaces as the new gospel.

So, what has gone wrong? Basically, a good idea has been put through the OFSTED mill. It has been made unnecessarily detailed and overtly directive so that those lazy, incompetent teachers out there cannot subvert it and their classroom practice will be changed as a result. That immediately disenfranchises and alienates all those creative, hard-working professionals who the education system depends upon and, along the way, it dresses David Blunkett in Gillian Shephard's clothes.

Given the goodwill towards a new Government and the willingness of the LEAs to work positively with the Department for Education and Employment, only a slightly larger measure of honest discussion would have made the National Literacy Strategy worthwhile and it might then have delivered its laudable ambitions.

Jim Sweetman is an education consultant and writer

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