In the goldfish bowl

31st January 2003 at 00:00
It will be little consolation to primary teachers suffering from initiative fatigue to know that the eyes of the world's research community are upon them. But it is clear reading the Fullan Report on the national literacy and numeracy strategies, published this week, that the Toronto academics who wrote it are fascinated by the boldness and scale of the Government's reforms. The question that intrigues them is: what does it take to reform a national education system? Can large-scale reforms continue to evolve productively?

The notion of being part of a gigantic experiment may not feel very comfortable. On the other hand, the experiment appears to be working reasonably well. Teaching has improved overall, and the achievement gap between the worst and best schools has narrowed, a trend which, if it continues, "would be a significant measure of success".The strategies are flexible enough to accommodate evolution. "Achieving a sense of common purpose that persists through such adaptation is no small accomplishment," say Michael Fullan and his colleagues.

But there are disquieting messages for teachers. Many think they have understood how to improve children's English and maths learning better than they really have. There is "considerable variation across teachers and schools in terms of expertise", which means much more consolidation and in-service training are needed. "Increasing the proportion of teachers who are experts at using the strategies to improve pupil learning is the next step, one that the strategies are addressing in a variety of ways," the report says. "However, many teachers believe that the job is done, that they have the knowledge they need and have fully implemented the strategies - a misconception that makes capacity building more challenging."

The single, high-stakes measure (level 4 at age 11) is militating against this too, by "skewing" teachers' efforts. It is more important for schools to concentrate on issues they identify, and to develop accountability, teacher-learning and high standards of their own.

Given the size of the project it is not surprising that many teachers still have much to learn, but they have also achieved a great deal in a short time.


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