Why testing is no enemy of children's creativity

What is wrong with expecting five-year-olds to count to ten when most parents want just this?
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The Independent Culture
DAVID BLUNKETT, Secretary of State for Education, has said that he will resign if national targets for literacy and numeracy are not met by the year 2001. Prize-winning children's author David Almond thinks that he should go now.

Blunkett has, Almond and his fellow liberal critics believe, driven all fun and creativity from the primary classroom. His focus on basic skills is crippling our children's imagination. The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies are squeezing the individuality and professionalism out of primary school teaching. Blunkett is obsessed with tests and targets, and determined to impose his "mechanistic philosophies" on every "energetic, inspirational and exemplary" teacher noble or foolish enough to fight the good fight for progressive teaching.

This is nonsense. If it is taught badly, the literacy hour, like any other teaching method, can be sterile and mechanistic. Taught well, it is fun. Children enjoy the variety of activities. They know and like the fact that they are making progress.

Teachers, for their part, appreciate the structure the hour provides. They know that they are not expected to follow every prescriptive detail. They know that everything still depends upon their ability to tailor the methodology to their children. They make good use of the opportunities for poetry, prose and drama, exploiting the hour's potential to develop creativity and imagination.

The inspection evidence is very clear. Music, art and drama flourish in the majority of primary schools. In particular, standards of achievement in music have risen sharply during the period 1994-98. The quality of the teaching of music, art and PE is very rarely weak. In most schools it is now better than the teaching of geography, history and RE. The teaching of literacy and numeracy is similarly improving as the National Strategies are implemented. As a consequence, fewer children are leaving primary school unable to deal with the demands of the secondary-school curriculum, and fewer sixteen-year-olds will end up unemployed and - in some cases - unemployable.

In reality there is no conflict here. If we want creativity, we must do everything possible to drive up standards of literacy and numeracy. If we want our teachers to teach better, then we must do everything we can to support them through training in teaching methods that we know to work.

This is simple common sense, What is it that enrages Almond and his fellow critics of Government policies? Why is it that an attempt to introduce homework into the primary school has provoked squeals from academics that homework is bad for children? Why do some educational experts think that it is wrong to expect five-year-olds to be able to count to ten and write their own name when most parents want exactly this for their own children? What is wrong with literacy and numeracy targets that focus attention on what needs to be done to secure year-by-year improvements?

The answer is always the same. Our children must be allowed time to play. Our teachers need to be able to focus on the whole child. You do not fatten a pig by weighing it. All was well in the good old days before our current back to basics obsessions drove the joy and excitement of learning from our children's lives.

Young children do indeed need time to play. But why should they not start to learn to read? Why is this such a life-threatening innovation? Children whose parents can afford to pay for a prep school education have always benefited from structured, rigorous teaching and yes, as they grow older, homework. Why should not every child, irrespective of their family background, have access to the same opportunities?

The sad fact, moreover, is that there never was a golden, progressive age. For too long, the reality has been that too many children have failed to learn to read. It is the introduction of National Curriculum tests and the publication, school by school, local authority by local authority, of pupils' results that has revealed the extent and the incidence of the problem. We now know that schools serving similar communities are achieving very different results for their pupils. We are now, for the first time, in a position to target intervention and to support appropriately. We now have a focus on achievement, a drive to raise standards in the basic skills, and therefore across the curriculum, that we have never had before.

In my judgement, these are healthy developments. Good teachers are not being driven from our schools by the doctrinaire, bureaucratic stupidity of current Government policies. Good teachers have always done and will always do what they want to do, and good luck to them.

The problem in the past has been the not-so-good teacher. The teacher who relied on worksheets that are mind-numbingly tedious; who wasted hours of precious classroom time on low level, unchallenging activities such as cutting and pasting; who failed either to prepare lessons properly or mark pupils' work conscientiously.

When I became Chief Inspector five years ago, twenty to thirty percent of lessons were routinely judged by inspectors to be unsatisfactory or poor. So much for the golden days of professional autonomy before the lives of teachers were blighted by the tyranny of tests. Now more than 50 per cent of lessons taught to seven- to eleven-year-olds are routinely judged to be good.

We cannot yet afford to be the slightest bit complacent. Teaching is still judged to be unsatisfactory in one in fourteen schools. We are continuing, that is, to fail over a quarter of a million children.

The progress that has been made is nonetheless startling. We must reject the siren voices that caricature present policies and look back to a mythical past. The only way forward is to continue with policies that are enhancing teaching professionalism and proving to be so successful in the classroom. The Secretary of State should not resign.

The author is HM Chief Inspector of Schools