I know I’m a week late on this but it’s taken me a week to be able to compose a temperate response to the news that Leighton Andrews, the Labour education minister for Wales, has suddenly decided that the pupils of Wales ‘deserve better’ and that what is needed now is to raise standards.
After twelve years of calling the shots, this must be one of the most egregious examples of the kind of cynical posturing (the elections are coming up in Wales) that says so much about the way politicians use education and, in particular, literacy. Or should I say illiteracy when, as reported by last week’s Economist, ‘almost a third of schools were deficient, and … two-fifths of pupils entered secondary school in Wales with delayed reading skills’.
What does Andrews say he’s going to do to raise standards that he hasn’t had chance to do in the previous twelve years? Introduce national reading tests. This would, of course, be an improvement on SATs, in the sense that it would actually tell us something about whether children can read or not, although it will be interesting to see what kind of test they decide to employ.
He also intends to discuss with governing bodies of schools their ‘performance data’. Naturally, this won’t mean a return to league tables. Heaven forbid! What performance data he’s talking about is the usual mealy mouthed politician-speak for something he almost certainly knows (at best) very little about. As the Economist put it last week, when the devolved government decide to bin the league tables and replace standardised tests with teacher assessment, ‘robust comparison of schools’ was made ‘impossible’. Quoting researchers at Bristol University, the Economist goes on to maintain that ‘such policies and the relaxing of standards that accompanied them, took almost two points a year off GCSE grades per student’ and that ‘poor students suffered most’. There, it couldn’t be more stark!
What else? When a school is irredeemably failing, he’ll close it. And, there’s going to be a ‘national literacy plan’. Hang on a minute, didn’t we just have the Literacy Strategies, on which over £2 billion was spent and which resulted in the UK slipping further than ever down the international league tables for science, literacy and mathematics?
So Andrews’s answer, just like the former Labour education minister, Ed Balls, is to issue a diktat. Schools must teach children to read! And, having said it, it means that it will happen! Unfortunately, it isn’t going to happen, Mr Andrews, unless you train the teaching practitioners how to teach reading and spelling, using a programme that works (linguistic phonics!). If you don’t, you’ll end up in the same position in another twelve years and that with all its knock-on effects. Not that you care. You’ll probably be out of office or you’ll be able to blame someone else and pretend it didn’t happen on your watch. What a disgrace!