Tests find fall in primary skills

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
A major new study has found a drastic deterioration in maths and English standards since the 1970s. David Budge reports

PRIMARY children's performance in English and maths has deteriorated significantly since the 1970s, according to a major new study which appears to vindicate the Government's drive to improve literacy and numeracy standards.

Average marks in widely-used maths tests have fallen from 56 to 45 per cent over the past 20 years, while the language skills score has dropped from 43 to 36 per cent. The biggest fall has, however, been recorded in reading and vocabulary - down from 63 per cent to 48 per cent.

Teachers should not be blamed for the decline, according to Professor Maurice Galton of Leicester University, who compared the test scores. The real culprit, he argues, is the national curriculum, which has slashed the amount of time teachers can devote to developing pupils' literacy and numeracy.

"It has reduced the time given to hearing children read and the amount of immediate feedback pupils receive while writing," says Professor Galton, who is to publish a follow-up study to the ORACLE primary project which he co-managed in the late 1970s. Professor Galton's 1996-97 study of 38 English primary schools - most of which took part in the earlier research - found that teachers are working harder than they were 20 years ago. "Many tasks once incorporated into the teaching day are now carried out after school," he says.

Professor Galton also rejects suggestions that informal teaching methods are responsible for the slump in performance. "Teachers now spend only 43 per cent of their time with individual pupils - compared with 56 per cent in 1976. Both whole-class teaching and group work, on the other hand, have doubled."

Pupils consequently spend more time "on task", he says. The increase in whole-class teaching has also encouraged "easy riding" by pupils who only pretend to work.

The findings will excite great interest as the ORACLE study is one of the best-known education research projects of the past 25 years. Nevertheless, Professor Galton's conclusions and test findings are unlikely to go unchallenged. He admits it is very difficult to make comparisons over time because language changes and test questions relevant to one generation may seem outdated to the next.

It will also be pointed out that he tested only 410 nine to 11-year-olds in 1976 and 476 in his more recent study. Furthermore, the deterioration in standards was much less uniform than the overall averages suggest.

Children now appear to be better at punctuation and use of capital letters and though nine and 11-year-olds tested in 1996 were worse at spelling and reading comprehension than the previous generation, the 10-year-olds outscored the class of 1976 in these areas.

Even in maths, the picture Professor Galton paints is not uniformly black. Children now have more difficulty with the 1976 maths problems but 11-year-olds' grasp of maths concepts seems to have improved slightly.

A book based on Professor Galton's study, Inside the Primary Classroom: Twenty Years On, will shortly be published by Routledge.

* Full report, page 24

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