It seems English schools are nearly the worst among developed nations at teaching basic literacy and numeracy. Apparently, according to the latest OECD figures, we used to do much better. Our pensioners are among the highest ranked in developed nations. According to Friday’s edition of The Times we have three times as many low skilled 16-19 year olds as in top performing countries.
Neil Carmichael, Conservative chairman of the education select committee, suggests these results can be explained by the failure of Labour “to make maths and English a sufficient priority” during their time in office. I’m not sure I agree. Labour invested huge sums in education. It was central to Blair’s Third Way to create opportunity through “education, education, education.” Labour’s failure was not due to their goals but their methods, a failure demonstrated by the OECD figures which (even allowing for statistical quibbles) hardly suggest a good return on Labour’s investment.
The prominence and emphasis still given to failed methods in our schools explains these results. The Times article inadvertently illustrated the problem by quoting an influential charity and pressure group ‘National Numeracy’. This charity, purporting to campaign for better numeracy, has actually previously attacked an emphasis on computation in classroom maths as boring and learning times tables as unproductive.
Surprising as it may seem, this charity is not simply ridiculed for these views because such ideas are mainstream in education. Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, has said that forcing primary school children to know their full times tables is unnecessary because they can look up the answers on mobile phones. In primary schools there is commonly an emphasis on understanding mathematics at the expense of fluency, even though the benefits of procedural competency are both self-evident and demonstrated through research. I saw the impact of this philosophy on my own children’s schooling, with time-consuming ‘motivational’ activities eating into their lesson time and minimal emphasis on practising procedures to fluency. Under Labour these damaging priorities were expected by Ofsted, which became the enforcement arm of progressive education.
Turning to literacy, once again the sometimes dull but necessary practice to reinforce learning was sidelined in primary classrooms where the Ofsted enforced focus was on ‘engaging’ learning activities. It was (and still is) generally parents that must supervise the most crucial learning activity of a child’s day, the reading book, a practice entirely inimical to equality of opportunity.
The Rose Review highlighted the problems with the approaches to teaching reading used in schools. The ‘mixed methods’ approach used in most schools encourages ‘prediction’ (guessing from first letters and pictures) rather than attention to decoding the full text on the page. Despite the overwhelming evidence for the benefit of using phonic decoding to teach early reading, outlined in the Rose Review, Labour followed the lead of the educational establishment which is bitterly opposed to emphasising phonics over ‘mixed methods’ for ideological reasons and has fought the phonics screening check introduced under the Coalition every step of the way.
Labour must take the responsibility for failure on their watch but apportioning blame is the easy bit. If we really want improvements, hearts and minds have to change. I am frustrated that the education establishment, which influences Labour policy, clings to ineffective methods. I wish primary schools would re-think their approaches but neither threats for poor performance nor rewards promised for improvements will improve outcomes because they won’t change the practices of those who, with the best of intentions, are already giving their all. Some left wingers as well as those from the right, do see that improving the life chances of less privileged children must involve their systematic and effortful acquisition of key knowledge and skills. An alliance of these teachers from across the political spectrum perhaps stands a chance of changing the entrenched culture in education, to effect real change.