Testing fails to improve 3Rs in primary schools

British Association for the Advancement of Science: Gloomy view of the effect of national curriculum, and a reprimand for slouchers
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Reading, writing and mathematics have not improved and standards may actually have declined in primary school children in the seven years since the introduction of the national curriculum and testing, a professor maintained yesterday.

The gloomy view given at the British Association conference in Birmingham by Robert Campbell, director of education studies at Warwick University, was endorsed by Chris Woodhead, the Government's chief schools inspector. "I think that judgement is about right - we don't have any evidence of rising standards since 1988," Mr Woodhead told a session on primary education.

Professor Campbell said that the Government and society were unable to say, with any certainty, what the trends were in the levels of attainment of younger pupils. He said the national testing results could not be compared from year to year, and earlier this year Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, had begun consulting on a further reform of the reading tests to make them more standardised and comparable.

The Government had made a grave mistake in 1990 by shutting down the Assessment of Performance Unit, a civil service body set up in the Seventies to provide reliable facts and figures on how pupils were doing, the professor believed. School inspections provided information about the quality of teaching, but were much less use in measuring pupil's attainment, let alone their progress.

Professor Campbell reviewed the evidence from several studies and concluded that the decline in mathematics attainment seen in the Eighties had probably continued into the Nineties. In reading, there was no justification for the view of a crisis in standards and teaching of it was "at least moderately effective in 80 per cent of schools", but there was no solid evidence of any improvement since the introduction of the national curriculum.

He called for the re-establishment of a national monitoring unit to conduct regular and objective surveys of primary school standards. "It could be done for a minute fraction of the pounds 34m a year currently spent on national testing," he said.

Professor Campbell also advocated textbooks approved by the national curriculum agency. Now, schools choose from what the free market offers. "There would be some ideological difficulties, especially in history, but a major advantage would be that everyone, teachers, pupils and most importantly parents, would known what was expected to be learnt and in what time scale," he said.

Mr Woodhead said the chief priority was to change the "ideological context" in which teachers thought. Their prime duty was to ensure that every child acquired a certain body of skills, knowledge and understanding which they were entitled to, rather than seeing themselves as facilitators who helped pupils learn what suited them - but too few of them saw things that way. He said he was engaged in "looking into the professional mind and heart" of teachers.