Key primary evidence mounts up;Opinion

24th September 1999 at 01:00
OVERWHELMINGLY the most important facts about primary education are the key stage 2 test results published last week.

They are incontrovertible evidence that primary education is improving rapidly in all kinds of communities. The significant rise in reading and maths scores is tribute to the dedicated hard work and professional skill which teachers have invested in the literacy and numeracy strategies.

Even in writing, where gains were modest, it is worth noting that this is the first time since figures were published, there has been any improvement at all.

The emphatic message, as Tony Blair said last week, is that government and teachers working together can make a difference. The clear expectations in the literacy and numeracy frameworks, their steady implementation, high-quality professional development and the consistent focus on achieving targets at school, local education authority and national level are a powerful combination which enables the skill and commitment of teachers to bear fruit.

This year's results provide a strong foundation but no one, certainly not government, has grounds for complacency. Hitting the 2002 targets remains a major challenge. There is a long way to go, in both numeracy and literacy but especially in writing. More-over each unit of improvement is harder to achieve than the last as we reach performance levels that the system has never previously attained.

If we are to achieve the targets then we must learn the lessons of reform elsewhere. The first is to recognise that we must continue to invest in and give priority to the strategies all the way to 2002. The past is littered with reforms which showed promise but fell down the list of priorities just when they might have delivered.

Second, we must seek to improve the quality of every aspect of the strategies. Primary teachers have adopted the literacy hour and daily maths lesson with alacrity - this year they must seek to achieve even higher levels of quality. The 1999-2000 professional development programme will assist them in doing so.

Third, there is a relatively small minority of schools which thought the literacy and numeracy strategies were not for them. They might have paid lip service to them but they believed their results were good enough to allow them to rest on their

laurels. These complacent schools are now being caught up and overhauled by others, often with far more challenging intakes, which have shown real leadership and commitment to faithful implementation.

Fourth, the evidence that the strategies work should re-kindle a sense of ambition. With continued investment, a collective sense of endeavour and a sustained drive, who knows what we might achieve?

Finally, it's worth pointing out that the critics on the sidelines who tried to sap teachers' confidence in the strategies have been proved wrong on almost all counts.

"The strategies will be damaging to pupils with special educational needs" - wrong: the evidence shows the opposite. "They'll hold back the gifted" - wrong: there's been a substantial increase in the percentage achieving level 5. "They'll undermine creativity" - wrong: children's creative writing and access to a range of texts have never been better. "The results will only go up because the Government will

fiddle the figures" - wrong: an all-party committee which consulted all the leading experts showed the tests and the marking to be robust.

These critics would have loved to rob

primary teachers of their achievement - but the evidence has buried them. The fact is that primary teachers in England are now at the cutting edge in worldwide education reform. Their secondary colleagues had better watch out!

Next week: secondary standards after

30 months of a Labour Government

Michael Barber is head of the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit

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