Page last updated at 18:35 GMT, Monday, 18 January 2010

Tories plan literacy league tables for six year olds

By Gary Eason
Education correspondent, BBC News

David Cameron
David Cameron launched his school plans at an academy in London

A future Conservative government would make schools in England test six-year-olds on reading and writing - and publish the results.

Outlining their draft education manifesto they said these tests were "a brilliant idea" that would "guarantee" children made progress.

The Tories also promise a "brazenly elitist" approach to teacher recruitment and would make it easier for heads to sack poorly performing staff.

The government said the plans were an airbrushed re-announcement of existing policies - and the Conservatives' plans for immediate cuts to school funding would mean fewer teachers, fewer teaching assistants and bigger class sizes.

The draft manifesto's promise of "a rigorous curriculum and exam system" includes the promotion of the system known as synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading.

Enjoyment

The Tories - who say schools should enjoy greater freedoms from central control - say they would have Ofsted inspectors check what system schools were using and penalise those that did not use synthetic phonics.

But this use of phonics has been the presumption for some years now, since Sir Jim Rose's report in 2005 on the teaching of reading.

Ofsted reported in 2008 that schools were responding positively to the recommended phonics method and there was a "virtuous circle" of improved reading skills and higher expectations.

The inspectors also concluded that children were enjoying their phonics lessons.

But the Tories say too many leave primary school unable to read, write and do sums properly.

The party leader, David Cameron, launched the draft manifesto at Walworth Academy in south London, flanked by his schools spokesman, Michael Gove.

In response to a journalist's question he said that giving six-year-olds a standardised reading test at the end of Year 1 was "a brilliant idea".

Mr Gove said it was well known that "unless children can read they can't read to learn".

'Secret data'

"Of course you should have the freedom as a head teacher to run the school your way."

But he said the test was "an absolute guarantee that children will make progress".

"We need to have that information in the public domain," he said.

At present teachers assess children aged six and seven to check the progress they are making in maths and science as well as reading and writing.

But there is no requirement on schools to publish their findings.

Doing so would be only a small part of the Conservatives' planned overhaul of the school league tables - still a staple of the English system that the rest of the UK does not have.

They say they would release far more of the performance data that the government has but "keeps secret".

So for example parents would be able to see how much funding schools get, or how many pupils take music GCSEs and how well they do in them.

Attainment gap

The Conservative ministerial hopefuls said their approach to teacher recruitment was aimed at enhancing the prestige of the profession.

They said a common factor in successful education systems such as those in Finland, Singapore and South Korea was that they took the best graduates.

So they would make a 2:2 degree the minimum requirement for those wanting to enter postgraduate teacher training courses in England. Thirds would no longer be good enough.

Currently some 2% of primary school trainee teachers and 3% of those at secondary level have third class degrees, according to the Training and Development Agency for Schools.

Mr Cameron was asked about his "brazen elitism" when the Conservatives were accusing the government of having failed to address the attainment gap between rich and poor.

Indeed Mr Gove told the audience that more boys at Eton College alone obtained three A grades at A-level - the passport to the best universities - than all the boys entitled to free school meals in the whole of England.

Mr Cameron said his party was simply drawing on what seemed to work elsewhere in the world.

Sackings

The party is keen to draw on the success of the Teach First charity, which encourages bright graduates to spend two years teaching in schools in challenging areas before embarking on other careers.

As well as providing money to expand that programme, the Tories say they would replace the existing government version of it, the Graduate Teacher Programme, with a scheme called Teach Now.

This would encourage experienced, successful people in other walks of life to switch in to teaching.

Mr Cameron said he would make it easier for head teachers to pay higher salaries to teachers who worked longer hours and produced better results from pupils - and to remove those who performed badly.

This would involve helping them to move to jobs for which they might be better suited, Mr Gove added - and also giving them a chance to improve their classroom practice.

Mr Cameron was not going to be drawn on how many existing teachers he thought should be sacked.

But this has not played well with teachers' unions.

Chris Keates of the NASUWT classroom union said: "Teaching will never generally be recognised as the high status profession it is while politicians keep making announcements which implicitly or explicitly denigrate and cast doubt on the quality of teachers currently in service.

"Nothing is more demoralising and demotivating than constant announcements of strategies to attract the 'best' teachers, implying those in post are somehow sub standard and the bar for entry has been set too low."

Universities were none too happy either.

A detail of Mr Cameron's announcement was that a Tory government would attract some of the best graduates into teaching in shortage subjects by offering to pay off their student loan.

'Good universities'

"As long as you've got a first or 2:1 in maths or a rigorous science subject from a good university - you can apply," he said.

The vice-chancellors' organisation Universities UK said it supported the aspiration to encourage the brightest graduates to teach.

But, added its chairman, Professor Steve Smith: "We have grave concerns about the implications of any limitation of support to students from 'good universities'."

"We support high quality graduates going into teaching and those graduates will come from a wide range of universities."

He called for a clarification.

And in any case, good academic qualifications are no guarantee of teaching ability.

The Teach First organisation does seek better-qualified graduates - but it rejects 85% of those who apply.

A spokesman said it evaluated them on eight other factors, subject knowledge being only one of them: -

  • humility, respect and empathy
  • resilience
  • leadership
  • planning and organisation
  • social skills
  • self-evaluation ability
  • problem-solving skills


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SEE ALSO
Tories set out schools objectives
06 Nov 09 |  Education
Tories promise 'elite' teachers
18 Jan 10 |  UK Politics
Tories back 'Teach First' scheme
22 Oct 09 |  Education
Teachers revolt over 'check-ups'
13 Nov 09 |  Education
Men urged to teach in primaries
13 Jul 09 |  Education

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