Small slip on a steep path

21st September 2001 at 01:00
IN ANY other week, the first slip in the key stage 2 test results would have been an occasion for government-bashing by Labour's critics in politics and the media. As it was, the news that English scores had stalled and maths fallen by 1 per cent was overshadowed by the grim scenes from across the Atlantic.

The low-key reaction was entirely appropriate, whatever the reason. The results may be merely a temporary setback, as most insiders believe. Even if the Government struggles to meet its targets for the number of 11-year-olds reaching the expected levels next year, its decision to aim high will still have been vindicated. Neither ministers nor primary teachers need to defend their record in raising standards during the past four years. In 1998, the proportion of pupils achieving level 4 was 64 per cent in English and 58 per cent in maths. The respective figures now are 75 and 71.

But it would be salutary if this year's results made ministers pause for thought. School improvement is notoriously difficult to sustain. In America, seven years of progress in Chicago's elementary schools ended this summer when maths scores dropped. In this country, success is bound to be problematic at a time when some schools are scraping the barrel to find staff and when, as the Government's own research shows, teachers are demoralised by the introduction of a performance pay scheme that was supposed to motivate them.

It would be a mistake, too, for ministers, who are now directing their attention and their spin-doctoring at secondary schools, to assume that they have "done" primary education. Big questions remain to be answered about the tests. Have we just taught children to jump through government hoops with too little regard for understanding and creativity? Could we do better, as new research from King's College, London, suggests, if we switched to "formative assessment" with regular teacher testing and feedback and fewer external tests?

For the moment, however, we should simply celebrate, a percentage point or two notwithstanding, the remarkable achievement of our primary schools.

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