Time to ditch the comfort blanket

16th April 2004 at 01:00
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Last autumn, five years after the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy, a colleague and I presented a series of conferences around the country on the theme of Literacy: What Works? We asked the 500 primary teachers who attended to list the three best and three worst results of the strategy. Since numeracy is not my strong point, I had no idea how long it would take to collate 2 x 500 x 3 written responses. Six months and 10 floppy disks later, I'm still at it - and still puzzling over the paradoxical nature of the results, particularly as regards the prescriptive nature of the NLS.

On the one hand, teachers clearly appreciate some aspects of centralised prescription. Just under 300 comment favourably on the structure provided by the framework of objectives, the document which set out teaching objectives for each year of primary school. As many put it, "we now know what to teach and when", and words like clarity, focus, continuity and progression crop up repeatedly. There's also praise for many teaching strategies introduced by the strategy.

On the other hand, more than 300 responses in the "worst things" section relate to the ill effects of prescription from on high, pointing out that many teachers now think in boxes, follow plans blindly, feel insecure and deskilled, and are afraid to innovate. The general impression, reading through these dispatches from the front, is that teachers may know what to teach and when, they may be equipped with worthwhile strategies, but all too often the final outcome is not better teaching but the dead hand of orthodoxy.

I suppose it was only to be expected. Mandates from central authority, no matter how well-meant, have a tendency to get corrupted somewhere along the line. Look at religion: you start off with 10 nice straightforward commandments, handed down directly by God, and before you know it, someone's written Leviticus.

The NLS's words of wisdom were, of course, accompanied by heavy emphasis on tests, targets and league tables, and - in the early stages, at least (when Chris Woodhead was still inquisitor in chief) - a punitive Office for Standards in Education regime. I suspect the rot set in, as it usually does in religion, because of this combination of bureaucracy and over-zealous policing.

There's no doubt that, back in 1998, primary literacy teaching was in need of attention. Teachers had for many decades been denied access to important subject knowledge about language, and in many schools, after initial teaching of reading, literacy was scarcely taught at all. Many of our respondents commented on their increased professional knowledge, and on the raised status of literacy in schools. In these respects, as well as the improvements in structure and teaching strategies, things have clearly changed for the better.

But it is also very clear that the heavy-handed nature of the reforms, along with the methods chosen to ensure "accountability", have left a damaging legacy: as one teacher put it "for many, the straitjacket has now become a comfort blanket". Before we can make further progress in raising standards, the Primary National Strategy must address this issue - although I suspect it's a lot easier to drive people into an orthodoxy than to entice them out of it.

Literacy: What Works by Sue Palmer and Pie Corbett (Nelson Thornes) pound;12.95 primary forum 18

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