Leading Article: Teachers' pay is the first lesson

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The Independent Online
We've missed the point, it seems. Having got worked up about Harriet Harman's choice of a secondary school for her son we have overlooked some fundamental questions. Children's education is in trouble long before they reach the gates of the local comprehensive. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the first test results for 11-year-olds published yesterday. Half of England's 11-year-olds are failing the Government's tests for numeracy and literacy, which, for instance, include spelling words such as "question" and "gently".

We should be wary of reading too much into these results. Schools will become better at preparing children for the tests. Even without significant changes in the quality of education, the test results may improve considerably over time.

Despite that caveat, the evidence overall is not good. Government inspectors have long identified the education of seven to 11-year-olds as the weak link in the school system. Take just one telling comparison: research by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) shows that English children are up to two years behind their Swiss counterparts in maths in spite of spending 18 months longer at school.

The most serious problems lie in the nature and content of teaching. An overloaded national curriculum - as the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, yesterday admitted - leaves insufficient time for teaching basic skills. She has promised to pare it back. But teaching methods should change, too. Studies by the NIESR show that our more successful Continental counterparts concentrate on teaching the whole class together rather than on individualised or group learning. Their emphasis on mental arithmetic, repetition and rote learning is more successful than allowing children to discover mathematical patterns for themselves.

The other crucial factor is the quality of teachers and the way they are managed. With thousands of qualified teachers leaving the profession early every year, and a high proportion of those that stay on demoralised, it is not surprising that children are not acquiring basic skills.

Perhaps the Department for Education should take a little advice from Adair Turner, the director-general of the CBI, who yesterday stressed that businesses had to invest in staff and pay them well. Successful schools, just like successful businesses, need a culture that encourages and rewards performance. The only way to turn teaching into the high status, well- respected profession that schoolchildren and parents need is to increase the rewards for good teachers and to remove those who prove unable to do the job.

Extra cash for junior schools means something else will have to give - possibly higher education, which could be partly funded through a graduate tax. If at the end of this week the only thing that everyone is agreed upon is that we should improve the quality of education for all our children, then rewarding good teachers well is the probably the best place to start.