No plaudits please, we're British;Opinion

29th October 1999 at 01:00
SINCE MY September column on the success of primary teachers in raising standards at key stage 2, the TES letters page has displayed plenty of people, even in the teaching profession, who are unwilling to give primary teachers the credit they deserve.

Some of the cynicism comes because we British simply don't expect improvement. As Bill Bryson points out in his bestseller Notes from a Small Island, Britain is the only place in the world where people, when asked "how are you?" reply "mustn't grumble". The very British shrug that accompanies that kind of reply says volumes about how our culture views the possibility of change. As a result, when significant improvement stares people in the face, they seek to explain it some other way.

So, some argue that the tests themselves must be invalid. While, of course, no test is perfect, Jim Rose's independent inquiry, which included nominees from the opposition parties, showed that the KS2 tests are extremely robust. Others say the tests don't measure real improvement, only preparation for them.

This argument, though, is being blown out of the water by secondary heads who have noticed the genuine difference in this year's intake.

The improvement is confirmed by research among primary colleagues. One primary headteacher told Phyllis Harris of Cambridge University that "targeting specific children with specific support at the right time can make a big difference". The very real improvement last year is the result of a combination of factors: target-setting, professional development, extra books, the National Year of Reading, good-quality materials, booster classes and the relaxation of the national curriculum as well as the literacy hour and the early introduction of the numeracy programme in 70 per cent of schools. It is time now to examine the steps necessary to build on that progress.

First, the National Literacy Strategy and the National Numeracy Strategy are just that: strategies. Unlike countless initiatives over the past 15 years, the direction and the investment will be sustained until they are fully embedded.

Secondly, the professional development programmes at the heart of the strategies will continue to improve. They will always be informed by evidence. Thus the training for all teachers of Year 5 and 6 later this term will emphasise those aspects of teaching which evaluation so far shows to be in most need of reinforcement. Take one example. We can all see that the improvement of writing is the biggest challenge facing us. But what aspects of it?

Last year, we saw improvements in the construction of sentences, the organisation of texts into paragraphs, the use of speech marks and the ability of pupils to write effective openings. This year, we need to build on this progress by strengthening spelling, improving the use of commas and apostrophes, refining pupils' capacity to write narrative (especially endings) and extending their range of non-fiction writing. Too often in the past, pupils have learnt about writing from a discussion at the beginning and then feedback when they have finished. Now the literacy strategy will emphasise teaching pupils to write as they write, because we've learnt that this works better. The training programme will focus on how to teach these skills.

Similar careful feedback and targeting is informing the numeracy programme.

No one should pretend that building on the achievements of the last year will be easy. No one should be complacent. But equally, no one should be cynical or dismissive either - that is grossly offensive to primary teachers. The combination of their commitment and skill, a strategic approach and a professional development programme targeted to improve those instructional practices which make most difference will lead to even higher standards.

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