Sunday, August 13, 2006

"3Rs" still weak in Britain

Ruth Kelly promised a relentless effort to improve standards of literacy and numeracy when she became Education Secretary almost a year ago. The national curriculum test results at age 11 show that plenty remains to be done, though pass rates edged up again this year. The proportion of pupils achieving level 4, the expected standard, rose by 1 per cent to 79 per cent in English and 75 per cent in maths, while science was unchanged at 86 per cent. However, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has acknowledged that only 56 per cent of those who started secondary school in the autumn had reached level 4 in each of the reading, writing and maths tests.

Doubts were raised last month about the degree of improvement in standards. Sir Cyril Taylor, an adviser to Kelly and chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, says secondary heads are sceptical about the true reading ability of some children who arrive with level 4 in English. A report from academics at Durham University last week found that schools routinely drilled 11-year-olds to pass the tests. It questioned whether such "teaching to the test" had led to sustainable improvements in pupils' understanding of English and maths. "Without question, national tests dominated classroom teaching of both subjects in these schools for a large part of year six," the report said.

Schools are under pressure to do well in league tables of results, so it is not surprising that teachers devote so much attention to the tests. Parents use the results as a guide to the reputation of schools, reasoning that those with high standards in the "three Rs" are likely to teach other subjects well.

But concerns are growing that the focus in many schools is becoming too narrow, as teachers concentrate on literacy and numeracy to the exclusion of subjects such as art, music and geography. David Bell, the head of Ofsted, complained in his annual report last month that many schools "are not sufficiently inventive in developing links between subjects" although they had the freedom to tailor the curriculum to pupils' needs.

Kelly wants schools to offer a "personalised" curriculum, tailored to the abilities and interests of individual pupils. She has told parents that they can expect their children to receive small-group or even one to one tuition for part of the week, although teachers have expressed scepticism that the funding will be available to support this initiative.

Government efforts so far to persuade schools to be more creative with the curriculum appear to have foundered despite evidence that primaries with the best results adopt such an approach. Ministers are setting fewer targets, perhaps sensitive to complaints from teachers about a "target-drive culture" or simply embarrassed at missing so many. Schools finally hit the 2002 maths target this year, although they are shy of the 80 per cent for English.

Jacqui Smith, School Standards Minister, insists that the targets for 2006 of 85 per cent in both subjects still stand. But they look unattainable without a suspiciously large rise in results next summer. This supplement shows the results for 2005 in English, maths and science tests for 11-year-olds at nearly 14,000 primaries in England, compiled by the DfES. Schools in Wales no longer have to take the tests. Schools are ranked by the aggregate of the percentage of pupils that achieved level 4 in each of the three tests. The national average aggregate score this year is 240.

A record 229 schools got the perfect score of 300 by getting 100 per cent of their pupils to the expected standard. About 1,200 schools with ten or fewer pupils eligible for the tests have been excluded from the main tables, as have 760 special schools. Private prep schools are not listed because they are not required to take national curriculum tests. The London Borough of Richmond upon Thames remains the local authority with the best overall primary results (see page 4), a position it has maintained since 1998. Hackney, North London, whose schools are managed by a not-for-profit trust, came bottom of the national league for the third successive year.


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