Please, Mr Johnson, stop tinkering with our schools

11 January 2009
The Yorkshire Post

THE Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, is definitely a worried man. You only have to look at the all the spin issued by his department to know that something is up.

The school inspectors Ofsted issued a report last week, 2020 Vision, that called for every pupil to have lessons and exams tailored to their "personalised" needs and, if necessary, extra coaching in English and maths. On Monday the top news story was – surprise, surprise – that the main recommendations of the report would be implemented very soon.

What many people don’t know is that this initiative was timed so that Johnson, and his department, have a fitting riposte to today’s publication of the new secondary school league tables. They show that school standards are in a rut, despite years of the Labour Party telling us that academic attainment is improving.

These league tables are also the first of their kind because they reveal how 16-year-old pupils fared in the two most important subjects: English and maths. They show that more than half of GCSE students do not attain the expected A-C grades in these subjects.

So, while previous league tables have purported to show massive improvements, they have in fact disguised the true state of affairs: that thousands of students leave school with pretty miserable qualifications. Johnson is clearly worried about the public’s response to this because it undermines so much of the Government’s education credentials.

The billions of pounds pumped into schools appears not to have significantly improved achievement in the core subjects with only a 0.8 per cent rise since last year. Most alarmingly, the proportion of pupils achieving good GCSEs in English, maths, science and a modern foreign language has now reached a record low.

The mediocre fate of Paul, a former student of mine, illustrates what is wrong with our wretched schools system. When Ofsted said last week that "for too many pupils, school does not engage them or equip them with the skills they need", they could have been referring to Paul, who I got to know very well during the two years that I taught him English GCSE.

He had been poorly taught right from the outset: at his primary school he did not learn how to read and write properly, although he knew enough to get by. At the root of the problem was that the teachers failed to teach him "phonics": he didn’t learn that specific combinations of letters create specific sounds.

As a result, his reading and writing remain poor to this day. Yet this shouldn’t be the case. When he sat his Key Stage One Tests, the exams that all seven-year-olds now sit in English and maths, he achieved a Level 3 which was well above average for his age; he is clearly a clever boy.

However, by the end of primary school, he only achieved a low Level 4 in English and maths, which was very disappointing considering his early promise. By this time, his failure to read and write fluently was significantly hampering his progress.

This downward trend continued in secondary school where his scores at Key Stage 3, the tests undertaken by 14-year-olds in English, maths and science, remained low. I taught him for GCSE but his poor habits were so ingrained that he only attained a D grade in English and an E grade in maths. However, he achieved five A-C grades in other subjects.
Once he left school at 16, he found that many of the skilled jobs in the area were barred from him because he failed to pass English and maths. He was turned down for lucrative IT and financial service sector jobs because of this. In the end, he went back to college to study vocational courses in business studies, which were entirely assessed on coursework.

"I can get my mum to write the coursework for me," he confessed somewhat lugubriously before adding: "But it really cheeses me off when I see eastern European kids working in offices in the City, and I’m there just as the work experience pupil on some crappy vocational course. But the thing is they can actually read and write."
Would Alan Johnson’s new proposals have made a difference to Paul’s results in the core subjects? It is very difficult to say. I certainly know that he would have benefited from extra English and maths lessons – something that my school at the time couldn’t afford.

However, I am suspicious about tests that can be taken at different times of the year. This already happens at A-level and it has spelt chaos because many sixth formers are so busy taking exams that they attend even fewer lessons than before. Rather than fiddling around with the exam system, the Government needs to issue a series of text books which focus upon the basics.

There is no uniformity across the country about how English and maths are taught: if you get well trained teachers who have access to the right resources, then you’ll do much better than if you have poorly qualified teachers who don’t quite know what they’re doing and have very few good resources to use.
Rather than pumping billions into a new exam regime, and the numerous other initiatives that are currently swamping our schools, the Government should invest in text books that had the backing of the teaching profession and would ensure that every child in the country at least covered the basics.

Yet Johnson’s current proposals could mean an even heavier burden of exams on schools, administrative chaos and yet more confusion. Instead, the Education Secretary should be placing renewed emphasis on the nitty-gritty of the main curriculum. Nationwide text books are the only way to stop the rot.

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