Headlines: October 24th, 2003

New research concludes that schools must be allowed to make their own best judgements on how to adapt national reading and writing standards in the light of their own circumstances and priorities. The detailed study of the implementation of the National Literacy Strategy was led by Dr Gemma Moss of the Institute of Education, at the University of London and sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council.The study shows that the scheme has, to a large extent, standardised how the English curriculum is covered and has provided standard ways of helping pupils who are making less progress than expected. But Dr Moss says too much emphasis on achieving targets regardless of local conditions can have a distorting effect on teaching and weaken teacher morale

The new study, based in two primary schools and four classes in different areas, provides a direct comparison with data on English teaching in primary schools collected before the introduction of the national strategy. It shows that standardisation is particularly strong for features such as the literacy hour, which ensures a dedicated block of time for English, and following a planned teaching programme.

But while progress has been made towards reaching the initial targets, what children actually achieve still varies between schools and between individual groups of pupils in the same school. In some schools, results have reached a plateau and in some others attainment is uneven year by year. The study says that the NLS has adapted its approach in the light of performance monitoring, but the rate of change at a national level has posed problems locally.

Emphasis on literacy as a shared activity has had a significant impact for the better on children’s participation, the study says, but in some cases the importance given to getting through the work on time means fewer opportunities for children to apply what they have learnt for their own purposes.

The study also raises questions about the order in which teaching objectives are taught, and the fast pace required to get through each term’s list of topics. It says this can lead teachers to emphasise speed of activity over pupil understanding. It concludes that these aspects of the NLS may need to be revised. Dr Moss says, “Strict adherence to only doing what the centre sanctions can relegate teachers to keeping up with new initiatives whose logic they do not understand and which they cannot therefore really make work in their own context. Some of these difficulties have now been recognised and those managing the strategy at national level are establishing the grounds for far greater local autonomy.”