Improving schools standards means more flexibility

Melanie Phillips’ support for Michael Gove in the Mail today is confused. While she is right to point out that more pupils should leave school able to read, write and count, she is wrong to assume that the Conservative's solutions will give us the outcomes we need.

Melanie Phillips’ support for Michael Gove in the Mail today is confused. While she is right to point out that more pupils should leave school able to read, write and count, she is wrong to assume that the Conservative’s solutions will give us the outcomes we need.

Michael Gove argues that current rates of illiteracy and innumeracy (which are approximately at average levels compared to other rich nations) are the fault of big government and central programmes. Phillips expands on this, claiming that initiatives such as:

“the National Curriculum and the National Literacy Scheme, and every quango such as the National Council for School Leadership, which trains head teachers, was subverted or hijacked by preposterous anti-education ideas.”

This critique belies the facts. The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, launched in 1999, relentlessly focused on the basics and demanded that teachers adapt their methods in line with best practice. This led to some impressive improvements. For example, since 1997, when outcomes were unacceptable, numbers now reaching expected levels at 11 have risen by almost 20 percent in English and Maths.

Moving outcomes from inadequate to average is one thing, but getting them to outstanding is another. And here Gove has got it wrong too. While there is an emerging consensus that after the early years of central prescription, we now need more flexibility in the curriculum and teaching methods to engage the minority of learners who are still struggling with basics. In June, Ed Balls told a conference of headteachers: “I think the right thing for us to do now is to move away from what has historically been a rather central view of school improvement through national strategies, to something which is essentially being commissioned not from the centre, but by schools themselves.”

Meanwhile, the Conservative party continues to support traditional subjects and techniques. And Balls himself suggested a return to central prescription in some areas during his speech to Labour party conference this month.

However, teachers will not be able to innovative to meet the needs of tough pupils if they are straight-jacketed by the traditionalism of the Secretary of State. So if either party is serious about getting through to the hard core, they should demand high standards, but acknowledge that innovation at the front-line will bring them about.

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