RRF Conference 2007: Chris Jolly 'Education strategies....'

Transcripts and Reports of Talks given at past RRF Conferences.
Susan Godsland

RRF Conference 2007: Chris Jolly 'Education strategies....'

Post by Susan Godsland »

Education Strategies in other English language countries - Chris Jolly

Let me describe in outline the education strategies in a few key countries so we can see the lessons that can be learned.

Starting with the US, the main federal programme is entitled “No Child Left Behind”. Its huge demand for data has led to wags calling it ‘no child left untested’. It has nothing to do with the curriculum as such. Instead it gives entitlements. If a school fails continuously the parents are entitled to have their child moved to a higher performing, or even a private school.

The difficulty here is that the school board that is responsible for the failing school is also the one to process the request for a transfer. In areas of widespread failure, such as New York City, there are insufficient alternative places and hence a long waiting list for transfer. We should contrast this with Sweden where parents can choose any schools they wish, state or private, and the funding will automatically follow.

In the US it is the individual states, and the school districts, which specify the curriculum. Again it is different from the UK. In England and Wales, for instance, the National Literacy Strategy gives detailed programmes of teaching. Teachers are then left to choose the materials they want to deliver it. In the US the curriculum is defined more broadly, with every possible aspect included. The states and school districts then mandate the commercial programmes to achieve it. These programmes are not compulsory. However they are funded and supplied. In practice only half the states mandate, the southern ones. School districts may or may not agree, and so they have their own processes of selecting programmes to mandate. The process of mandating follows a cycle, say every 3 to 5 years.

Moving now to Australia, an over-riding feature is the huge variation by state. It is as if each state is a different country. There is a different curriculum for each subject for each state. And not only the curriculum – the font used changes too. New South Wales foundation is a ‘print letter’ font while ‘Victorian Cursive’ is a ‘precursive’ font, with joining tails.

In Canada the pattern is repeated, with the provinces, not the central government, being responsible for curriculum. As can be imagined, Ontario and Quebec will have very different ideas on the subject. I do question the effectiveness of much of these curricula, especially as phonics does not play a large part in any of them.

Against a background of greater governmental control internationally, England and Wales have seen the greatest levels of control and intervention. Besides extensive control of the curriculum there have been targets, league tables, increased levels of school inspection and massively increased funding.

At the same time it has to be said that there have been a number of ways in which government intervention has worked against raising standards. The belated recognition of synthetic phonics has held back many years of schoolchildren. The fostering of a counter-educational philosophy of child-centred play rather than structured teaching has likewise held back achievement. Very important too has been the emphasis on centralised power, with initiatives and instructions, rather a policy of fostering teacher knowledge and decision making with a greater responsiveness to parents.

It is worth looking more closely at the range of curriculum initiatives in England and Wales. Over the 17 years since the National Curriculum was first launched there have been 10 of them, each of which, for instance, require a change in the teaching of literacy in the Reception year. Not only have there been so many of them but the complexity has increased over the years. Today the Reception teacher, teaching literacy, has to adhere to three different government programmes. The Primary Framework requires the teaching of 12 Strands, with 3 Themes per Strand, and up to 5 Units per Theme. The Letters and Sounds programme has 6 Phases, all of which are quite different from the components in the Primary Framework. Finally the Early Years Foundation Stage will require the teaching of 6 Areas of Learning and 113 Early Learning Goals. It is hard to see how this complexity enables a teacher to focus on effective teaching.

In Scotland the contrast is remarkable. Until the new Curriculum for Excellence comes into force in 2008 there has been no specified curriculum. For my part I have been impressed at the way this freedom has been used in Scotland to raise standards, notably in Clackmannashire and West Dunbartonshire. The Scottish Office has circulated the results of good interventions, rather than specifying required practice, leaving teachers to decide for themselves.

So what has been achieved by these various policies? In the US the No Child Left Behind policy was promoted and justified by the lack of improvement, notably in reading scores, over the previous 25 years. The evidence since the bill came into force has not been encouraging. Spending has increased sharply but standards remain much as before.

The results in the UK are no more encouraging. Figures from the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre at the University of Durham show a modest gain in reading standards in the years immediately prior to 2000, but no gain since. More of the earlier gain is attributed to teachers teaching to the test. Peter Tymms, who led the study, states that there is no significant gain from the National Literacy Strategy while the Cambridge Primary Review, largely from the same figures, sees no real change in reading achievement since the 1950’s.

Against this very disappointing background other studies do show factors that seem to be crucial in raising standards: enabling focus on a curriculum that is simple but has progression.

An example of this comes from a study comparing the results in the Third International Maths and Science Study. Compared with high achieving countries such as Finland and Hong Kong, children in the US not only did poorly but the gap widened the longer they were in school. When the researchers looked at the differences the main one was not in the content of the curriculum but in its structure. By contrast to the high achieving countries, teaching in the US lacked focus with too many topics at each grade level. These topics were then repeated year after year, with little sense of organised progression. Crowding the curriculum with all possible advice, it seems, will hinder achievement rather than enable it.

Much the same conclusion came from the Rose Review where the teaching of reading was focussed on the ‘simple view of reading’ with its emphasis on early teaching of synthetic phonics and of comprehension. Gone were the four searchlights with its lack of coherence.

In conclusion then, I do not have an optimistic picture to paint. State control is growing, it is growing internationally, it is a mis-guided catch-all and it does not produce the results. Sadly, it shows the continuing need for lobbying and reform.