With hideous timing for the Government, the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected level 4 in English has fallen for the first time since national tests were introduced in 1995.
The Conservatives say it shows Labour has "failed to deliver". The National Association of Head Teachers, which is campaigning for its members to set and mark their own tests, says parents should ignore them. Meanwhile, junior schools minister, Diana Johnson, declared the results a "blip" while pointing out – correctly, as it happens – that youngsters who reach level 3 are still capable of reading and writing, albeit at a more basic level.
They all miss the point. Around 175,000 more youngsters still reach the expected level each year than did so 14 years ago, a result of the combination of accountability and pressure that has accompanied the tests, including Labour's literacy and numeracy strategies. But this year's results are no "blip" either. They follow a pattern of little or no improvement since 2000. And the big issue is not the one point fall in English – after all, maths recovered after two earlier dips – but the absence of momentum behind the 3Rs in primary school.
The most important feature of the years between 1995 and 2000, when results rose rapidly, was single-minded momentum. Schools were in no doubt that their top priority was the 3Rs. That momentum disappeared as ministers merged the literacy and numeracy strategies into a catch-all primary strategy, and began to give equal emphasis to welfare issues. Of course, primary schools should offer a broad curriculum and care for their pupils' welfare. And they should ensure that pupils who can read get access to plenty of good books.
But the focus of government needs to be clear. After all, those pupils who don't reach level 4 are unlikely to gain five good GCSEs. And without them, they will find it much harder to get a good job or progress to university. The best school welfare policy is a good education.
Given the improvements since 1995, the focus should now be on narrowing achievement gaps, not only between boys and girls, but between subjects: 91 per cent of pupils gain a level 4 in English, maths or science, yet only 71 per cent do so in all three subjects. A pupil who can reach the standard in one subject should be able to do so in all three.
Equally, there are plenty of schools in poorer areas with 90 per cent of pupils reaching the expected standard. Tower Hamlets has improved from 36 per cent gaining level 4 in English in 1995 to 81 per cent last year, with many local primaries comfortably outstripping the national average. But let's not lose sight of why testing and accountability were introduced – too many primary schools assumed that children would acquire the 3Rs through osmosis or their parents. The losers in this lottery were poorer pupils without supportive or fluent parents.
And, given the evidence that rigorous phonics, a sound grasp of grammar and punctuation, and a facility with mental arithmetic are essential building blocks for the 3Rs, governments should not shy away from expecting schools to deliver them. But if government wants schools to do better, it must avoid mixed messages. Ministers made a big error allowing the abandonment of Labour's literacy and numeracy strategies to be seen as an admission of their failure. And the Tories played a foolish game when they suggested that the Key Stage 2 tests could be replaced by teacher-marked tests in secondary school (they have since indicated that external marking is more likely).
The main reason there has been so little recent progress has been that – with the exception of a renewed focus on phonics – there has been too much muddle over what matters in primary schools. The latest thematic review of the curriculum is in danger of adding to the confusion.But the strategies should not be revived: schools must be held accountable instead for the extent to which they successfully teach the 3Rs, and encouraged to use the best of the available commercial teaching programmes. Ofsted inspections should ensure that children are taught the basics properly, and show how some schools succeed against the odds.
Yet, in the end, the only way that we can know whether individual primary schools are doing their job is through independently set and marked tests. To imagine that our children would be better taught without them is to ignore the lessons of history.
Conor Ryan was a senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett. He blogs at http://conorfryan.blogspot.com
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