Last week was an interesting one for anyone interested in literacy. Or testing. Or children. Or politics. Or – well, there was something for everybody really.
On Wednesday evening the Daily Telegraph broke the story that, under Conservative plans to ensure there is ‘zero-tolerance of failure and mediocrity’, children who ‘fail’ their SATs at the end of Year 6 will be required to resit them up to two times in Year 7. Secondary schools that don’t get at least 80 per cent of these children to ‘pass’ the resits ‘could face possible government intervention.’
It’s hard to know where to start in response to this suggestion. Perhaps with a reminder that SATs are designed to be an accountability measure for primary schools, not an exam that children need to pass before moving on to the next stage. Or with a question about what, exactly, the Conservatives think secondary teachers do with children who need additional support in English and maths – shrug their shoulders and concentrate on the clever kids instead? Or with an invitation to the politicians to spend some time in the typical Year 6 classroom, where even the best teachers struggle to provide a broad, rich, engaging curriculum while simultaneously ensuring that every child can spot a fronted adverbial at twenty paces – and to consider whether we want to inflict more of the same for another year? Or (I’ll stop in a minute), perhaps by asking whether the best way to ensure children start secondary school eager and ready to learn is by telling them that they’ve already failed?
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think everything in the literacy garden is rosy. Far from it. We all know how crucial it is for children to have the reading and writing skills to access the wider curriculum and that too many children continue to struggle with key literacy skills far beyond the point where they need to have mastered them. And we also know, if we’re honest, that some children don’t make as much progress in Year 7 as they could. But another high stakes test, and another year of teaching to it, is not the answer.
Thankfully, last week also saw the launch of a new report from the Read On. Get On campaign which contained more thoughtful proposals for addressing the problem of children who can’t read well when they leave primary school. Recognising the crucial importance of early childhood in literacy development, and the impact of deprivation, the report called on the next government, of whatever hue, to focus on three priorities for the early years:
Early education in every nursery in England to be led by an early years graduate by 2020, with government support initially focused on nurseries serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Every nursery in England to have at least one non-graduate member of staff with an intermediate level qualification in young children’s speech, language and communication.
The creation of a cross-departmental early years minister to coordinate Whitehall strategy and delivery on early years services across health, education and local government.
The campaign’s priorities for the primary phase for the incoming government are:
A new strategy for improving the teaching of reading comprehension, especially for older primary school children.
Working with schools to develop a new generation of school leaders for literacy, focused on primary schools serving disadvantaged children.
Focusing school accountability on children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are falling behind, by exploring reforms to the pupil premium.
There are some challenges here, and some tough decisions (the suggestion of focusing the pupil premium on disadvantaged children who are struggling, rather than all children from deprived backgrounds, is likely to be particularly controversial). As an overall set of proposals, though, it has much to recommend it, seeking as it does to get to the heart of why some children struggle with reading and writing, rather than simply bringing in yet another stick with which to beat schools for failing to solve the problem.
The report has apparently received cross-party backing. I sincerely hope the incoming government follows through on that support. Children struggling with literacy deserve proper, evidence-informed help – not to be branded failures at the age of eleven.