Tests, not literacy, should be consigned to the bog

Huw Thomas

I don't think I teach "bog-standard literacy". But that's the description chosen for a collection of pieces published by the National Centre for Language and Literacy. Waiting for a Jamie Oliver: Beyond Bog-standard Literacy boasts an impressive line-up of contributors, including children's writers Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen, each offering inspiration and provocation.

Sadly, it's a muddle-headed work whose philosophy is summed up in Chris Powling's piece describing the "devastating narrowness of the National Literacy Strategy", which he claims has damaged the pleasure of reading and writing, leaving "bog-standard literacy" as "the norm".

I also believe the enjoyment of literacy is paramount, but I have to disagree with Powling's assessment of the strategy. Maybe I've spent too much time in schools, but I just don't see the same scenario.

I see a strategy that has expanded creativity while also enhancing skills.

Admittedly, it works best where it is seen as a starting point. Few schools are now following the strict pattern of a literacy hour every day.

But in 1997, the NLS revolutionised practice by requiring the regular teaching of poetry, the expansion of the genres we wrote and an appreciation of word-play, fantasy, scary stories and the enjoyment of Shakespeare. I've no doubt there is bog-standard practice out there, but let's take care not to confuse a strategy with how it is delivered.

I would echo the pamphlet's call for more word-play, for the reading of real texts, whole stories and enjoyment of writing. None of these is at odds with the strategy. There isn't one objective in it that cannot be taught with creativity and fun. The truth is, children have no fun doing what they lack the skills to do. The ancient philosopher Epictetus said "the educated are free". Children with writing skills write more freely.

Where I totally agree with Waiting for a Jamie Oliver is in its attack on the real bogey. Anyone with a heart for creativity must be pained by the way that, just as they reach their most creative and brilliant, we channel our children into bog-standard Sats. I know what sort of bog I'd apply to those tests.

Bernard Ashley hits at a real dilemma for teachers who want to be creative but also have to attain targets when he says: "What drives us with Sats is not excitement, experiment and experience but fear - and when was fear ever creative?"

But to confuse the NLS with the tests misses the point. The strategy expands literacy experiences, the Sats narrow and deaden them. Just when our children could write novels and produce Shakespeare plays we turn them towards 45-minute hurdles that fail to assess the stuff of literacy. To quote Ashley again: "Writing should be part of a celebration, not part of a calibration."

Waiting for a Jamie Oliver is a stimulating read, worth much consideration, but it is confused, and this is not a good time for confusion. The coming year will prove crucial for the future of literacy. It concerns me when I see the Commons education select committee hijacked by the phonics lobby, a band of crusaders often clutching magic-bullet schemes. It concerns me that our Secretary of State might not listen to people who know about literacy in all its richness - the sort of people David Blunkett called on back in 1997, the sort of people who wrote the National Literacy Strategy.

HT Waiting for a Jamie Oliver is available from the National Centre for Language and Literacy; www.ncll.org.uk

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Huw Thomas

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