Let us pause and reflect

4th May 2001 at 01:00
Secondary schoolteachers know that all is not well in the education of their youngest pupils. More than a third of them still fail to reach the expected standard in national tests for 14-year-olds in English and maths. Research shows that some pupils actually go backwards during their first year at secondary school and the Office for Standards in Education has found that lessons for pupils aged between 11 and 14 are poor compared with those for other age groups.

So, the principle of the need for change is accepted. The implementation of the new key stage 3 strategy, designed to boost literacy and numeracy, is another matter. Teachers in some of the 200 strategy pilot schools, whom we quote this week, say that it has been helpful in raising standards.

But there are two main worries. The first is that a 90-page document detailing how to teach maths, and instructions on literacy that include a 700-word spelling list, will infuriate a secondary-school teaching force with a long tradition of independence, and will stifle its creativity. Ministers may repeat their favourite mantra that none of this is compulsory but the response will be hllow laughter. Wait, teachers say, until the OFSTED inspector calls.

The second problem is that of workload. Every teacher in the pilot schools surveyed by the National Union of Teachers questioned the timing of reforms which coincide with changes to GCSE and A-level, and the Government inquiry is that is getting underwayinto the profession's burden of bureaucracy.

Ministers point to the extra money available for the strategy. Of course, schools welcome that. But what use is money to hire supply teachers so that staff may attend courses to improve their teaching if there are no supply teachers to be had? The size of this week's TES underlines for the second week running the scale of teacher shortages. The retraining of secondary teachers envisaged by the Government is simply not practical at present.

Without teachers' co-operation, key stage 3 will remain the poor relation of the school system. Secondary teachers are less malleable than their primary colleagues. The expected arrival of a new secretary of state for education after a June election should provide the right moment for the Government to pause for thought.

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