December 11, 2003
Primary education – why the improvement and why the levelling off in the improvement?

I struggle to get a sense of whether primary education is getting any better, and if so whether any improvement that has happened is anything to do with government policies.

John Clare, in the Telegraph (linked to admiringly by Melanie Phillips), doesn't really explain why things have turned out as they have, but at least he says what the story is:

… For the past three years, the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected levels in English and maths has stalled. Not only does that leave one in four ill-equipped to cope with secondary school, but it offends our national expectation that standards will continue to rise as relentlessly in the future as in the past.

Almost worse than that in the Government's eyes, there's now not the slightest prospect of primary schools reaching the literacy and numeracy targets it originally set for them next year and subsequently shifted to 2006.

So, an improvement, but then a disappointing levelling off in that improvement. Things have got as good as they are soon going to. That's what's happening. That's the picture, as painted by Clare.

But why? Clare attacks progressive-creative education, and lauds chalk-and-talk. But that doesn't explain anything about the pattern of (a) improvement and then (b) slackening off in the improvement. Melanie Phillips echoes Clare in trashing progressive-creative, but the same complaint applies to her. (They both join in denouncing Ofsted's interpretation of its own findings.)

I mean, if the government's policies (which are not necessarily the same as Ofsted's) are so bad, how come there was any improvement at all?

Suppose that primary school doctrine can indeed be classified into either progressive-creative or chalk-and-talk, either/or. Crude, but maybe that'll do. And suppose that our present government has switched from neutrality and trusting the teachers and the educrats and the teacher trainers and basically worrying about other things (my take on the attitude of the previous government towards ) to being semi-strongly inclined towards chalk-and-talk, and semi-hostile to progressive-creative. Maths hours, literacy hours, a semi-serious move towards phonetics, etc. An effort, but still quite a bit of confusion. Again, that's a simplification, but there has been something of a shift, some way towards chalk-and-talk, but not the whole way.

Suppose further, as I do, that Clare and Phillips are right that chalk-and-talk works better than progressive-creative. What I see is an educational world in which whatever good the shift (such as it has been) in government policy has now done pretty much all it can. Those teachers and educrats and teacher trainers who are willing to change their ways have now changed them. Those who aren't willing to change their ways aren't going to, unless they are subjected to a whole lot more pressure than this current regime is willing to put on them. Hence the levelling out in the improvement.

Well, that's my story and … I'd be very happy to change it in the light of further evidence.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:52 PM
Category: Primary schools