Spelling out the cost of literacy lunacy

29 June 2009
The Times and The Sunday Times
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Teachers feel vindicated by the dumping of failed policies

Ed Balls’s ditching of the numeracy and literacy strategies is a jaw-dropping admission of failure. Until the strategies were dumped late last week, they were the flagship education policy of the Government.Indeed, the Department for Children, Schools and Families appeared to be so confident in the strategies’ ability to improve attainment that it financed a big revamp of them in 2005, paying the private firm Capita £100 million a year to deliver training and materials.

As an English teacher at a comprehensive, I have spent many hours over the past two years rewriting schemes of work so that my lessons would be in line with the new strategy. This work was pointless because everything is being junked.

The national strategies in literacy and numeracy were introduced with huge fanfare in 1998. Over the next decade spectacularly detailed instructions were issued to schools on how to teach English and maths to children aged 3-16 years.

For a head of English such as me, this meant attending lots of meetings, reading and writing lots of policies and buying lots of resources at vast expense.

My colleagues and I realised from the start it wouldn’t work. The bureaucrats had run riot with a torrent of paperwork, insisting that we taught hundreds of meaningless “learning objectives” – statements of what a student should learn in a lesson. When I protested to Ofsted inspectors that this approach bored my pupils and demoralised my staff, I was told I was failing at my job. I had to motivate my staff to implement this insane policy. This was one of the reasons I gave up my head of department role last year.

In common with many schools, our results rose but only because the Sats were rigged to favour the schools who stuck to the rigid formula of the strategies. Our own tests and observations showed that the pupils’ English skills were declining for the simple reason that they found the lessons uninspiring. Research by the OECD has shown the UK slipping well down the international league for pupils’ attainment in English and maths, losing the top ten position it had ten years ago.

If only the Government had realised in 1997 what it realises now: it’s best to leave teachers to teach. Think of all the money and time that could have been saved! And think of all the school-leavers who would have had some basic skills.

Mr Balls has given a lethal injection to the dying body of his Government’s education policies. May it rest in peace.

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