Prophets of doom

7th August 1998 at 01:00
Beware the high priests of national literacy, warns David Rosenberg.

It was like an evangelical meeting. With 60 other potential converts, I watched the video screen on which a headteacher was announcing that she too had been sceptical but six weeks later had been convinced. She was followed by a stream of teachers, young and old, describing their experiences of enrichment and empowerment as they bore witness to the promise of enfranchisement for all. The old ways could be cast aside. New goals could be striven for.

Careful camera angles caught children looking in awe towards a big book. As the image faded, we were urged to turn to the next page of our new bible, the National Literacy Strategy.

Step by careful step, we, who had assembled for two days in inner London, were taken through the new commandments.

* Honour phonics.

* Covet not other curricular areas.

* Group by ability.

* Remember the literacy hour to keep it sacred.

* Spend 15 minutes a day on a big book, 15 minutes on focused word work, 20 minutes on sentence work, and 10 minutes on reflection.

* Strive for consistency across the breadth of the land.

* Remember and fear the mighty OFSTED.

* Honour whole class teaching.

* Hark not after the freedom to teach according to your best judgment but follow the ancient ways.

* Question not the underlying assumptions, for their fruit is blessed by the Holy Blunkett.

The priests of the literacy strategy (or consultants, as they were introduced to us) insisted that obedience to the strategy would ensure that standards would be raised for all, and if we were not prepared to take their word for it we could listen to the children themselves. We returned to the video where children were asked why they like the literacy hour. "It learns you things, " said one (well maybe not yet). "You don't even have to read the whole book, " said another. His honesty reveals much about the literacy strategy, for it is not about children appreciating literature, developing their imagination and thinking critically, but learning about words and sentences, recognising phonemes, collecting verbs, identifying personal pronouns.

We started to grow restless. Murmurs and grumbles turned into awkward questions. The answers were all in the bible, we were assured.

Being committed to mixed-ability teaching. I raised doubts about grouping children by ability. Others questioned how the strategy could cope with vertically-grouped classes or a class with one very large ability group and small numbers at either end of the spectrum. We were told there was flexibility and, of course, we could adapt. How far could we go? "You could have a group of three children, two or even one child," admitted a rather unnerved consultant. "One isn't a group," someone whispered loudly. One moment we were instructed to abide by the model, the next we were told we could make significant adaptations. What happened to the commandment on consistency?

Despite adverse press headlines, many schools have invested much time and effort in developing their plans and strategies to produce highly literate children. Yet they are being asked to jettison this work and replace it with a single methodology which is deemed to guarantee success for all pupils. Teachers who have developed various styles of teaching over many years, and who have used their training and experience to find the most creative ways to teach and reinforce literacy within a broad, balanced curriculum, are now asked to isolate "literacy" as a separate subject and discard their multi-faceted methods in favour of a "national" approach imposed from above.

I waited in vain for the consultants to offer an educational rationale for their creed. Instead we were offered a managerial rationale of "maximising the efficient use of teachers' time".

In Britain's major cities, where children come from such a variety of backgrounds, children are treated as a homogeneous mass required to receive and process knowledge and information in exactly the same manner. Groups of one notwithstanding, the strategy explicitly criticises "individualised learning".

Despite a liberal sprinkling of late 20th century phrases like "empowerment", "opportunity", "support", drawn from theorists and movements which sought a genuinely progressive approach to education, the strategy threatens to revive a thoroughly traditionalist practice: rigid grouping by ability, plenty of quick-moving, whole-class teaching, and didactic methods which disadvantage slower learners, children who lack the confidence to admit they are not "keeping up", and children who need time to explore ideas.

At the end of two days I felt neither empowered nor enriched, but enraged. I was not converted, and I suspect the ranks of the dissenters will swell. Then perhaps the government that preached "education, education, education" will discover the need for consultation, consultation, consultation.

David Rosenberg is a Year 2 teacher and language co-ordinator at a primary school in Islington, north London.

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