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Why primary teachers 'toed line' on reforms

Primary heads and teachers are kicking themselves because they were too complacent when the Government's literacy and numeracy strategies were introduced in 1998 and 1999.

"With the benefit of hindsight, most heads and some literacy and numeracy co-ordinators were critical of themselves for giving in to national and local pressure," says Rosemary Webb, of York university, in a paper presented at Bera.

"The majority of teachers interviewed described how they 'toed the line'

even if they had misgivings about what they were doing and, if they did deviate from recommended practice, they did not publicise the fact to colleagues," says the paper.

Even high-achieving schools whose practice was well-regarded in their local authority had taken the changes on board in case they had a poor year and had to justify their policies. "It is having that courage, strength of mind, to say 'well no, this is good practice, this works within my school'," one beacon school head told the researchers.

The minority of schools that chose not to implement the strategies or to modify them described themselves as "doing battle" and "defending the barricades" against consultants and advisers.

Staff were also highly critical of the Government for "imposing" the strategies. Dr Webb and her team spoke to staff, observed lessons and collected other evidence from 50 schools in 16 authorities throughout England as part of a research project commissioned by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

They found significant changes in teaching practice brought about by the strategies. Teachers are now much more likely to share their lesson objectives with pupils at the start of the lesson, and try to establish what the children had learned throughout the lesson. "I never would have thought a decade ago of actually telling them what I was going to do before we did it," said one deputy.

Teachers do far more whole-class teaching than a decade ago, and have much more control over the direction and pace of lessons. These changes have fed into the way other subjects are taught as well. The findings show that staff have grown more critical of the literacy strategy over time, but their support for the numeracy strategy has increased.

"Despite some caveats the national numeracy strategy received overwhelming support," says Dr Webb. Not surprisingly, following a loosening of government strictures in 2003 with the publication of "Excellence and Enjoyment", which encouraged schools to take more "ownership" of the strategies, schools modified the literacy programme far more than the numeracy scheme. They found that 53 per cent of heads "strongly liked" the numeracy strategy, with 45 per cent expressing mixed responses, while only 16 per cent strongly liked the national literacy strategy, and 21 per cent strongly disliked it.

Although early on heads were more keen on the strategies than teachers, "our sample suggests that at a much later stage, when the strategies had more firmly bedded in, the responses of headteachers and teachers were very similar".


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