We'll do it our way

13th June 2003 at 01:00
Ministers must realise standards go up when schools draw on the creativity of pupils and staff. Diane Hofkins reports

In the world the world of polarised positions, where traditional is the opposite of progressive, and phonics is the opposite of real books, there has been less comment on another pair - outcomes versus process.

In the 1980s, before the national curriculum and its tests, primary school was mostly about process. Children were meant to be engaged in discovery, and measurement was unimportant. The two came together powerfully with the advent of the literacy and numeracy strategies.

The Government believed it knew what process would lead to the outcomes it wanted - a high percentage reaching level 4 in their English and maths tests. Schools became so worried about using the approved methodology, that last year the new chief inspector, David Bell, had to stress that outcomes were what really mattered, and how they were achieved was up to the school.

It was necessary at the time to put it this way, but of course outcomes and process are inextricably linked. The question is, which comes first? Do you set a goal and insist that everyone's priority is to reach it, or does raising standards start somewhere else?

Around the country, schools are increasingly refusing to be intimidated by targets. Heads, such as Suzanne Brown, of Queen's junior school, Nuneaton, are finding that when they bring back the fun, and concentrate on excitement and engagement, rather than meeting external demands, pupils learn more, and the curriculum gets covered anyway (TES, May 23). Hers was just one of the stories people have sent us in response to the TES Target Creativity campaign.

Another head, Michael Lloyd, of Scartho junior school in Grimsby, sent an entire wall display of photos and children's comments on his school's creativity week in March, which included salsa and samba, salt dough sculptures and murals, drama and puppetry, and a competition to design a tie for Mr Lloyd.

"The buzz, interest and participation in such a week is incredible", he writes. "It makes us all realise what is really valuable, without losing sight of basic studies. We need the balance without the pressure. There are so many exciting things to do and so little time, but we must stop making excuses and just get on with it!"

Last summer, when inspection was looming, Tyning Hengrove junior school in Bristol put together a programme of all the enrichment activities the children had experienced that year.

"We and Ofsted were impressed, and we have tried to develop this programme further this year with planned events rather than trusting to chance", writes head Julia Skinner. "It has made us more confident in our commitment to a broader curriculum. However, we are not expecting our Sats results to soar! That will take time, but we do have pupils who have deep knowledge about lots of things."

Why is this simple concept so hard for the Government to grasp? Schools have got to find their own ways to raise achievement. And it takes time.

There was much rejoicing in the primary world after Education Secretary Charles Clarke published his primary strategy document, Excellence and Enjoyment, which recognised the importance of a broad curriculum, and conceded that targets should be built from the school up, rather than ministers down.

Now they are giving the impression that they did not really mean it and have chosen to disregard the lessons of research on school improvement and effectiveness. A letter sent to local authorities last week by David Hopkins, head of the standards and effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Skills, said all schools should aim to improve on "the value added from cohort to cohort". In other words, although every Year 6 group is not expected to get more level 4s than the last, its individual pupils'

scores should be that bit better than might have been expected, compared to last year's group.

This recognises that year groups vary, but in some ways it is more pernicious than previous demands for scores to constantly rise, because it appears on the surface reasonable. But a substantial body of research evidence, to which Professor Hopkins has contributed, shows that year-on-year improvement is rarely sustained for long.

In addition, schools with fewer than 65 per cent of pupils at level 4 are enjoined to "set a trajectory of how to reach it as soon as possible". Does this mean they must have targets for pupil stability; for staff retention; for decreasing numbers of refugees and other children with English as a second language; for improving the area; for well-educated Yuppies to move in?

All these have an enormous effect on test results, as ministers well know.

This is why they have such progressive early-years' programmes as Sure Start.

Schools cannot solve the problems of their neighbourhoods - although many do their utmost to help. What they can do is attempt to find the best ways to help their individual pupils to learn.

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