Poor teaching skills 'are undermining literacy results'

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Primary school teachers' poor grasp of English and maths is undermining the Government's literacy and numeracy strategies, an official evaluation has concluded.

Primary school teachers' poor grasp of English and maths is undermining the Government's literacy and numeracy strategies, an official evaluation has concluded.

Gaps in teachers' knowledge of their subject and weaknesses in their teaching methods are threatening to limit improvements in reading, writing and numeracy, the analysis for the Department for Education and Skills found.

The report, by a team of academics from Toronto University, concluded that it was difficult to assess the effect of the strategies on pupils' learning. While literacy and numeracy scores had risen significantly between 1997 and 2002, much of the increases had occurred before the introduction of the two strategies – literacy in 1998 and numeracy in 1999.

The team, led by Professor Michael Fullan, also warned ministers against setting ever higher targets for schools, arguing that this would backfire when staff began to regard the goals as unrealistic.

But this advice came too late for the Government, which has already set new and higher targets for primary schools, despite failing to meet the previous goals in the summer.

Soon after coming to power in 1997, the Labour government set challenging targets which which required 80 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach a required standard in English, and 75 per cent in maths, by 2002. But after a strong start, the improvements tailed off and both targets were missed.

Despite this failure, ministers have repeated their desire to push ahead with more demanding goals that require 85 per cent of students to reach the standard in English and maths by 2004.

The team of academics highlighted the weakness of some primary teachers' knowledge. "For [the strategies] to succeed in the ways that strategy leaders believe are possible, many teachers will need to be highly skilled and more knowledgeable about teaching literacy and mathematics than is currently the case," the report said.

"The data indicate that for many teachers, gaps or weaknesses in subject knowledge or pedagogical understanding limit the extent to which they can make full use of the frameworks and resources of the strategies."

The report also said that the high-profile nature of the targets had had "unintended negative consequences" for primary schools. The concentration on literacy and numeracy had narrowed the primary curriculum and "skewed" lessons towards some "misinformed and counterproductive" activities.

The team cast doubt on ministers' ambition to improve standards further. The pressure on teachers to comply with directives from central government threatened to create a "culture of dependence" that would make it difficult for schools to raise standards once the ministers' focus had moved, the report concluded.

The study welcomed the narrowing of the gap between pupils' results in the most and least successful schools and local authorities. "If this improvement in low-attaining schools continues, it would be a significant measure of success," the study concluded.

But it also reported the doubts of some teachers and headteachers who believe that improvements in results reflect children's familiarity with the tests rather than any real improvement in learning.

Stephen Twigg, the Schools minister, welcomed the report for pointing out the strategies' successes but admitted that up to 5,000 primary schools were underperforming.

"We must not be complacent," he said. "Whilst one in four children do not achieve the expected standard in literacy and numeracy, there is more work to be done and higher standards to achieve."