Why thanks are so hard to convey;Opinion

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
"The literacy and numeracy strategies (are) our two most critical education policies of this Parliament. I am well aware of the demands these strategies have made of you. And I would like to thank you and your staff wholeheartedly for the skill and energy you have devoted to implementing the literacy strategy and preparing for the numeracy strategy."

Tony Blair's words to the National Association of Head Teachers' conference deserve much wider circulation than they have had. Primary teachers and heads have responded magnificently to strategy demands, and hard though ministers and the Prime Minister try, it isn't easy to get newspapers to report straightforward gratitude. It's not "a story".

An article I wrote for the education page of a broadsheet newspaper a few weeks ago provided a perfect case in point. I wanted to present to a wide audience the growing evidence of the positive response of the profession to the strategies. I also wanted to convey the Government's congratulations to primary teachers for their achievements this year.

A little editing was undertaken and a sentence was taken out. It had read:

"Primary teachers deserve to be congratulated for their achievements this year." To the sub-editor it was pure froth, but to me this was the single most important sentence in the piece.

It's not just straight praise that newspapers are unwilling to report. George Stephanopoulis, spin doctor to Bill Clinton for several years, reports in his book (All Too Human) that the American press was not biased to right or left but "towards controversy". Of course, controversy is more of a story than agreement but the emphasis on controversy, and the exaggeration of it to make the story more dramatic, has an inevitably distorting effect.

For example, last week's TES front page bore the headline "Science sacrificed on altar of literacy". This would be terrible if it were true but the story below said spending on science had been cut in one third of the schools surveyed. Presumably we can assume, therefore, that it was maintained or increased in two-thirds. Given the emphasis on literacy, that seems rather heartening news.

Furthermore, while the amount of time teachers are spending on training and preparation for science was down, which is understandable given the pressures of literacy, it was still substantial and at least half of the teachers surveyed had used a science text during the literacy hour, enhancing the teaching of both science and non-fiction. The Association of Science Education's chief executive, David Moore, urged more training on how to maximise the literacy hour's potential benefits for science - an excellent idea.

The article made no mention of some key facts that were obviously relevant. The Government has maintained the place of science in the core curriculum. Mathematics and literacy have a major contribution to make to achievement in science. Indeed literacy performance at 11 is a very strong indicator of science performance at 16.

This year for the first time ever, there is an excellent science scheme to help primary teachers with their planning. It was sent to every primary earlier in the year but it is also available on the standards site (www.standards.dfee.gov.uk) and visited more than 4,000 times per week.

In short, the Government's standards drive, which has literacy and numeracy at its heart, is also designed to strengthen science teaching too. Creating a false dichotomy and writing a striking headline may help to sell newspapers, but the only thing that will be sacrificed on the altar of literacy is ignorance. And the nation, from the Prime Minister downwards, will be profoundly grateful for the steps primary teachers are taking to achieve that outcome.

Michael Barber is head of the standards and effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Employment

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