No more quick fixes

28th February 1997 at 00:00
If Labour really wants to persuade us that it is now a party of consensus then this week's preliminary report from its Literacy Task Force will certainly help its cause. A Reading Revolution: How We Can Teach Every Child to Read Well unashamedly reaches across education's political divide. It gathers together a range of initiatives, many of which have already taken on life under this, Conservative, government.

In its focus on teacher training, for example, the Literacy Task Force picks up the Teacher Training Agency's recently produced national curriculum for student teachers. Labour's desire for a clear regime of target setting echoes the long-awaited scheme of national bench-marks and targets prepared by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. The Government's National Literacy Project is also praised. Even Christopher Woodhead, HM Chief Inspector and officially appointed bogeyman to the educational Left, will be pleased to see his Office for Standards in Education given a prominent role in Labour's drive to raise standards of literacy. The report is clear: "there is nothing to be gained from a new government coming in and overturning good work which is already in progress".

Consensus cuts more than one way, of course. In recent months Labour's education spokesman David Blunkett has sounded as stern as, if not harsher than, his Conservative counterparts about under-performing teachers and schools. Yet blame is notably absent from this new task force analysis. Trendy teachers, trendy teacher trainers and trendy teaching methods: these staples of education policy announcements make no appearance, despite the obvious temptation as the election comes in view. Such a steady refusal of the cheaper shots is a potentially liberating course. Indeed it is essential and makes room for the one genuinely new strand in Labour's argument: the appeal for society as a whole to act and raise the status of reading and writing - in the long term. The blame-ridden, quick-fix, solutions of the past might have been colourful. But attacks on teacher trainers are little incentive for the wider world, whether parents or business leaders, to take a share of responsibility.

If consensus politics means recognising the needs of all and not just a vocal minority, then here again Labour's plans score. Its mission is explicitly to raise standards for the average as well as the brilliant pupil, and to eradicate the "tail" of underachievement. This has theoretically been the wish of the current administration. But in truth Mr Major's obsession with the "gold standard" of A-level has diverted public attention and effort from the more serious economic and social problem: that is to say the great mass of educational under-achievers.

In all these ways the work of the task force is to be welcomed. But there are criticisms too, as Professor Harvey Goldstein makes clear. Political and academic priorities make uneasy bedfellows and not even Professor Michael Barber, who is both dean of new initiatives at London University's Institute of Education and the chair of Labour's task force, can prevent them surfacing in the report.

As Professor Goldstein says, the true picture of educational performance in this or in any other country is vastly complex and well beyond the scope of thumbnail descriptions. He may well be right that the nature of differences between schools remain scientifically unproved. And he is certainly correct to argue that both politicians and academics should be honest about the limitations of their education data.

Professor Barber and the task force are probably not as completely heedless of academic research as they might be painted. The task force itself includes a school effectiveness expert, for example. And it has undoubtedly listened to the sorts of concern raised by Professor Goldstein, among others, about the weakness of age-related test scores which wrongly imply that performance in different subjects can be readily compared. Hence the task force decision to keep with "level 4" as an indicator, vague as that might be.

In any case academic purity has its own special dangers. The fact is that directing time, money and attention to reading does tend to pay dividends, however unscientific those dividends might be. The trick is to avoid claiming too much for them. If we are obliged to wait for scientific data of unarguable proof before we act, we will might have to wait much longer than anyone thinks acceptable, let alone Mr Blunkett or his political colleagues.

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