Moving English Forward?
March 14, 2012 in Blog
I find this latest Ofsted report both interesting and worrying.
It comes at a time when there is a focus on the disproportionate number of black young people unemployed and the number getting 3 A Levels – 1 out of every 50 as compared to 1 in 8 whites.
Ofsted’s chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw is concerned about literacy levels in primary schools and wants to introduce a ‘no excuses culture’. Among other things, he wants the Government to consider lifting the Level 4 benchmark at Key Stage 2 .
Interesting, because I remember well how badly the 50 experienced teachers I recruited from Trinidad to teach in Hackney’s primary schools (mainly) when I was director of education and leisure services there (1989-1996) were treated by headteachers and their UK trained colleagues, including black teachers. Those Trinidad teachers were rightly appalled at how poor children’s reading, writing and spelling skills were and set out to teach them those skills by tried and tested methods, especially the use of phonics. I had to discipline one headteacher who had walked into a class to observe a lesson and in the presence of 30 children had remonstrated with the Trinidad teacher and rubbed her work off the blackboard saying: we don’t use these teaching methods here.
I remember writing a report at the time in which I argued that if those Trinidad teachers who were succeeding so evidently in pushing up levels of achievement in Hackney’s primary schools had been from New Zealand or Australia, the Department of Education would have been parading them up and down the UK as exemplars of good practice and would have been packaging their teaching methods as recommended good practice in schools. Instead, many of those teachers had to suffer the stress of seeing their own children regress in the schooling system here and the indignity of having to teach an arbitrarily designed Literacy Hour which in their view was hardly likely to result in a more literate schooling population, as time indeed proved.
What is worse is that when they tried to demand more from their UK trained colleagues and from the black children they themselves were teaching, some black parents remonstrated with them for making their children work too hard. In one case, I had to intervene as director to prevent the escalation of an incident in which a black parent physically assaulted a Trinidad teacher for precisely that reason. In other words, whereas in the 1960s we started our supplementary schools in order to rescue our children from poor teaching and appallingly low standards in schools, using the methods we had learnt ‘back home’ and bringing to our work the high ambitions we had back home and the high expectations we had of the UK schooling system, by the 1980s/’90s a generation of UK schooled black parents had been socialised into the dumbing down of both schooling standards and educational aspirations.
Roll on 50 years since the birth of the supplementary/Saturday school movement and 22 years since the Trinidad teachers first experienced such racially clad ignorance at the hands of some Hackney headteachers, we now see government wanting to impose synthetic phonics on schools which are all supposed to be operating in this free space, free from the interference of local authorities and elected representatives of the people who could hold them accountable. Yet, in this age of devolved powers and of parental power, I see no evidence of black parents organising themselves to hold schools to account for the appalling attainment levels of black children or to hold themselves to account for dumbing down our own expectations of the schooling system. Presumably, we and the nation’s parents are happy to have that accountability rest solely with the chief inspector of Ofsted.
The report is worrying because it fails to address the issue of attitudes to reading, especially among boys, in the UK and elsewhere while they develop literacy in a completely new language, the language of the mobile phone and Facebook which for many of them have displaced real books. Children increasingly become proficient in this language (obscure to most adults) at a very early age. For many of them, the difficulty is in making the transition from that language which comes so naturally to them to the standard of speaking, spelling, reading and writing that accessing the curriculum demands.
The Department for Education is introducing ‘phonic screen checks’ at the end of Year 1. This is a further lowering of the age at which children are tested and at which teachers prepare children for tests. I wonder if those Trinidad teachers, some of whom are headteachers now, were to list and evaluate the number of government imposed changes they have implemented in the twenty two years since they started to teach in London schools, just what that list and those assessments would look like.
Maybe that is an exercise Sir Michael Wilshaw himself might care to do. He may be a new chief inspector with a new improvement agenda, but he might just consider how many times we have been here before.