Literacy strategy is creative

6th June 2003 at 01:00
The real villain is the testing regime, says Huw Thomas, while Mike Todd (below) uncovers building blocks for inspiration.

I'm wary. If Charles Clarke suddenly said, "Ok you lot, do the creativity thing", a part of me would tremble. If my child's school wrote home saying "We're slimming the hours devoted to literacy, devoting the time to dancing", he'd be out of there like a shot. I'm wary of a clueless, ill-defined creativity.

I always kept my babies when I threw out the bathwater, so let me be equally protective about one particular strand of education reform. I would contend that the National Literacy Strategy has not, as many argue, reduced creativity. It has animated it to an unprecedented degree. Let's dispel notions that a Shangri-La of perfect education preceded ministerial reforms. English teaching was a mess. There were classrooms in which the daily diet was phonics worksheets and schools where the only literature was Dick and Jane schemes. Yes, in such a free climate teachers could be dynamic and creative. The risk was they could also be boring. Admit it, you knew a classroom you wouldn't put your kids in, and so did I.

We needed a strategy which can expand the range of literature encountered, ensuring children delve into various types of non-fiction, requiring an understanding of grammar and proffering interest in words as an antidote for the sterile debate about phonics. This isn't ministers telling teachers what to do. The strategy was written by teachers for teachers and it works.

Isn't it a shame the testing regime takes the creative breadth of the strategy and starves it down to tests? If ever there was an example of the right hand not knowing what the left was doing, this is it. I don't want to be too political about this, but a government that has strategically found a way to raise standards in literacy ought to now have the guts to squash the destructive aspects of the testing regime left behind by its predecessors.

The new criticism of testing and targeting stems, not from the loony extremities of our unions, but from the realisation that targets and tests are starting to have a detrimental effect on standards. For while there is no conflict between creativity and standards, there is a conflict between creativity and sham results. I sat there the other week with children about to take English Sats encouraging them, if asked for an opinion, that their priority was to mould an answer that creamed the most marks. That's bad teaching but good cramming. In Sats, honest truth takes second place to points - could this be why politicians appreciate them?

Creativity plays with what's already there. It starts where we all are and goes somewhere new. My school used to have the annual Eisteddfod festivals of poetry and music. I remember entering a choral speaking team and being given Walter de la Mare's "The Listeners" to recite. We decided it would be quaint to set it to the tune of "Everything Stops for Tea". We learned it by heart, worked with metre and pronunciation - the usual stuff - but we enjoyed a new direction. (It got chucked out, and that taught us a further lesson!) Creative people take new directions. Some are dead ends, but we're ready to try the path. However, unless we want to get completely lost we should ask this one question: what limits define the creative space we seek? That'll take some creative thinking.

Huw Thomas is head of Springfield primary school, Sheffield Platform, 21

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