Leading article: The foundation stone of education

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The Independent Online

In the modern world of education, declines in exam pass rates have become something of a rarity. So the latest national curriculum test results, which show the first fall in 11-year-olds' English scores since they were introduced in 1995, have caught the eye.

We should be wary of reading too much into a single set of results. For one thing, they show only a slight decline, down 1 per cent on last year. And if they had shown a continuation of the trend of yearly increases some would be citing them as further evidence of exam result inflation.

That said, what these results reveal is hardly cause for celebration. We should not be satisfied that 20 per cent of primary school pupils are failing to reach the standards expected of them in literacy. Nor can we be relaxed about the fact that 21 per cent of pupils are falling short in maths.

Reading, writing and arithmetic constitute the foundation stone of a decent education. All children, with the exception of those with serious learning difficulties, should leave primary school able to write and add up to a reasonable standard. Talk from some teachers of a natural "ceiling" in pupils' aptitude is defeatist nonsense.

So what needs to change if more children are to leave primary school adequately equipped? Many teachers claim that the tests themselves are the problem because they demand extensive preparation time, distort the teaching process and put pupils off learning. They argue that the way to improve primary education standards is simply to get rid of national curriculum tests. That would be a step backwards. It is reasonable to have a standardised national evaluation of the academic progress of all children by age 11. But the teaching unions do have a case when they complain that tests have come to dominate life in primary school classrooms.

There should be a single assessment for children in their final year of primary school and teachers should have some flexibility on when they sit it. Within that framework, good teachers should have the space and freedom to teach as they see fit. That, in the end, is the best way to improve standards and ensure that children leave primary education with the skills they need for a productive and fulfilled life.