You don't have to be American to toe the line

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Last week the chief inspector reminded schools it was OK to be more creative in the way they teach English. The week before, Jim Rose, currently conducting the Government's reading review, said teachers and heads knew what their pupils needed, and should get on with it, without waiting for more official reports.

The primary world should feel empowered; schools which have used the literacy strategy to create something that feels like their own are more comfortable places than those which carry its weight as an unwanted burden.

But despite government admonitions, not everyone feels they have "permission" to be flexible. Some heads are so determined to raise test scores that they literally terrify the pupils into Sat success. Visitors report seeing frighteningly well-behaved children. Others worry about the approval of inspectors. But among those heads who need to be more courageous and trust themselves and their staff, are others who don't have "permission" to develop their own path. They tend to be running schools in deprived areas, possibly in special measures, but more likely in the national primary strategy's intensifying support programme.

At its best, this involves a genuine collaboration between schools and advisers, where teachers learn how to focus better on individual needs. At its worst, it can lead to an over-concentration on the sort of literacy and numeracy work which wasn't working in the first place, at the expense of broader experiences.

The danger is two curriculums: one for the rich and one for the poor.

Fortunately, we are not there yet, and to ensure we never get there, it's worth considering what is happening in many American cities. Under pressure to raise test scores among overwhelmingly ethnic-minority populations, school boards have imposed highly structured, scripted lessons which teachers must follow. This ethos is so extreme that, according to the American magazine Harper's, at least one urban district has instituted a stringent grading system for the way classes line up and walk through the halls.

It seems to be an extension of President Bush's controversial No Child Left Behind ethos, legislation which demands much measuring to raise the achievement of the deprived.

The article's author, Jonathan Kozol, argues that it is symptomatic of a growing apartheid in American education, with white children attending well-appointed schools with a rich curriculum, while ethnic-minority youngsters go to increasingly dilapidated institutions with highly-regimented lessons.

Many inner-city teachers are very uncomfortable with these demands, but care about the children enough to carry on. One joke heard in urban schools is, "The rich get richer and the poor get Success for All" (a system of scripted lessons which has been much used here, too).

Kozol was not free to reveal which urban district had instituted the "rubric for filing", which grades pupils on how they march along the corridors. There are four grades which range from "Line leader confidently leads the class... line is straight... spacing is tight... the class is stepping together... everyone shows pride, their shoulders high" to "Line leader is paying no attention... heads are turning every way... hands are touching... the line is not straight... there is no pride."

We can be reasonably sure that New York is not behind this. The city has recently discontinued its Success for All and other similar programmes, and moved to a city-wide, whole-language approach - which looks remarkably like England's literacy framework.

The city's website emphasises teacher skill and child individuality, as well as time for proper reading and writing. Scores have gone up since 2002, when the system changed - by more than 14 percentage points.

Diane Hofkins

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