When the consultant calls

Secondary teachers are complying with the literacy strategy because they feel they have no choice, argues Bethan Marshall.

The national Literacy Strategy is non-statutory and the national curriculum carries the force of law, yet listen to the advice being given these days and you could be forgiven for thinking it was the other way around. Local authorities have employed an army of consultants to support, cajole and often simply demand that secondary English departments across the land adopt the strategy in all its glory.

Some consultants have taken a low-key approach, selecting the best the strategy has to offer, pointing out that we should all know before a lesson what we intend our pupils to learn. Others explain that most of the 100 or so competencies that Year 7 students should have acquired are things that good English teachers would teach anyway. The strategy, they say, just gives them a bit more guidance. But not even the low-key consultants allow you to ignore it altogether.

Next come the keen followers. They will admit the strategy, when too rigidly applied, is enough to bore the pants off any child, but they have enjoyed the challenge of rethinking their practice. They will admit the jury is still out on whether it has made any difference, but like the rigour it lends to planning. While they too suggest flexibility is the key, not to be systematic in the implementation of the strategy would be missing the point, so they advocate adopting the framework wholesale.

Finally, we have the aficionados. These have a missionary zeal. No doubts about the strategy's efficacy are admitted. Any questioning is dismissed as cynicism.

So what of the teachers on the receiving end? Some have embraced it with the passion of the aficionados. Of the hundeds of teachers I meet around the country, these constitute about 10 per cent. The other 90 per cent are considerably more doubtful, but not many have openly defied the non-statutory order. What most have done, it seems, is to talk-the-talk when they get a visitation, but not truly walk-the-talk in the classroom. I understand why.

Teachers are under a huge amount of pressure, even from the low-key consultants, to demonstrate compliance. They go through the motions rather than face the hassle of putting their head above the parapet. More significantly, they feel there is no choice. As a result, they map their schemes of work against the framework, which gets the consultants off their backs. They toy with starter activities and find whiteboards can be quite good fun. They teach more technical terminology, but remain unconvinced that it is really improving the quality of writing. They don't mind the fact that the strategy has given them something to think about, but resent the fact that it appears to have jettisoned so much of what they know works.

All of this means that the picture we receive from the consultants about how successfully the strategy has been implemented in schools is deeply flawed. Go into the same schools as they are visiting and ask a different set of questions, or simply listen to the conversations in an English department and a wholly different picture emerges. But the surveillance culture that exists means that it is very hard to get the much-needed debate about what is really going on in our schools even started.

Thinking should not be done behind closed doors. No one should feel the need to censor what they say. Teachers play the game, as they believe resistance is futile. Their creativity is channelled into subverting government documentation.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer in English education at King's College, London.

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