The ice age stunneth

1st December 2000 at 00:00
It is time for the chilling prescriptiveness of the literacy strategy to thaw and for teachers to be trusted to raise pupils' standards by giving them feedback, writes Bethan Marshall.

SOME people plunge into cold water. Others wade. Either way, there is an initial shock before a certain numbness sets in to help disguise the fact that the temperature is too cold for comfort. I have heard such bathing described as bracing, even invigorating. In the end, though, nobody wants to stay frozen that long. I think I feel the same way about the literacy hour.

When it first came out, I was shocked. After 17 years of interference by the Conservatives, it took a Labour government to introduce some of the most prescriptive measures we have seen in education. True, it was non-statutory, but with the Office for Standards in Education breathing down your neck and combative talk from Education Secretary David Blunkett about having to prove you were doing a better job, it was a brave headteacher who ignored its strictures.

So primary schools dutifully began to make sense of the lists and clocks and other paraphernalia which surrounded the literacy hour and the numbness set in or, to use a bit of management jargon, it began to bed down.

In fact it didn't really bed down at all. Teachers justifiably resented the workload. They found some of it very useful and helpful. They adapted and softened the rest at the edges and continued to complain, unheeded, that it was not helping children improve their writing. In the past year, however, these observations have begun to gain official recognition. For, although the levels are rising due to the diligence of the primary sector in preparing children for the tests, a breakdown of the scores shows that, while reading is improving, the standard of writing is staying the same.

Of course, many involved in education had warned of this danger. How, they argued, can children develop their writing when they do not have enough time to write? It is one thing to know the technical term for a part of speech but quite another to use it effectively in your own work. That needs practice. Nevertheless, Mr Blunkett clearly thinks he has sorted out primary schools.

Now it seems that secondary schools are also to be plunged in at the deep end. Schools in 17 local education authorities have been selected to pilot the numeracy and literacy hours. I use the term pilot because the Government does but, in fact, the strategy is to be "rolled out", to use the official term, to the whole country before the finings of the pilot have even been analysed let alone made known. They would be wise to be more cautious.

Already those in the pilot are restive. One head of English from Cheshire was moved to comment that it was "damaging the professionalism and creativity of English in secondary schools". One member of his staff was thinking of leaving at the end of the year to go to the private sector and two others were considering giving up teaching.

Another head of English in Nottingham commented that it was "fragmenting the curriculum" and added that it "took little account of extended reading and writing". Another, from Gateshead, remarked that she was concerned about the narrowing effect of the tests proposed for the end of Year 7, while a teacher from Hertfordshire felt that the literacy strategy was "simultaneously narrowing the curriculum and de-skilling English teachers".

Having been trained for the literacy hour, I share their concerns. Rather than deepening pupils' understanding of how to use the language effectively, there is a set amount to get through and it must be covered irrespective of whether the pupil has internalised or made any sense of it at all.

The teacher is simply there to tip the knowledge in and move on. As we have seen from the primary experiment, this does little to raise standards. The bitter irony is that Labour does have a better model on offer. This is the less well-publicised third strand of its key stage 3 strategy - assessment for learning.

We already know, from the work of professors Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black, that formative assessment - where pupils and teachers engage in a dialogue about the progress of the pupil - is the key to improving children's performance.

But there is little or no acknowledgement of this in the literacy strategy. The notion that you simply continue from one topic to the next irrespective of whether the class has grasped it flies in the face of all the research on effective use of assessment. So why, we must ask, is the Government ignoring its own advice?

The answer may lie in the fact that formative assessment relies more on the professional implementation of the teachers.

This is not a model of paper-pushing. There are no lists here to be ticked or forms to be filled. It is an engagement between pupil and teacher in the process of learning. It is time to come in from the cold.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer at King's College, London and author of 'English Teachers - The Unofficial Guide', published this week by Routledge Falmer

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