A war on illiteracy and innumeracy – my own musings!

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A war on illiteracy and innumeracy – my own musings!

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Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, clearly not as high profile or as unpopular as Mr Gove, published an article in The Sunday Times last week in which she announced her “war on illiteracy and innumeracy” and that if the Conservatives are re-elected then she will introduce new measures and tests to impose an expectation that all KS2 schoolchildren will learn their multiplication tables by heart (up to x12) as well as be able to carry out long division and multiplication – all by the age of 11. In addition, all KS2 pupils will have to pass a writing test, which will be designed to demonstrate that they can use accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar. The inference is that the children will be expected to do some kind of extended writing task – e.g. write a short story – in order to demonstrate their competences. An additional requirement will be some kind of test in which the pupils will have to demonstrate their understanding of a “set text” – i.e. an age-appropriate novel from an official Department for Education shortlist.

I wonder how many of you are reading this and thinking: I thought they did this already? Well, no, they do not. As with Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 tests/examinations, Key Stage 3 Tests (or “SATs”) have changed over the years, as have End-of-Key Stage Assessments. In English, for example, there is a one-hour Reading Test (designed for Levels 3-5) and a complementary English Grammar, Spelling & Punctuation Test. There is the option of entering children for an additional Level 6 Test in the same areas, but there is no writing test for example. End of Key Stage 2 Assessments are still heavily dependent on Teacher Assessments, including for the data used in published performance tables and RAISEonline. These are the actual instructions from the DfE’s own Assessment and Reporting Guidelines for 2014 (Section 5.1):

“At the end of key stage 2, teachers must summarise their judgements for each eligible child, taking into account the child’s progress and performance throughout the key stage. They need to determine:

• a level for each attainment target in English, mathematics and science; and
• an overall teacher assessment level in each of these subjects.

Teachers must base their judgements on the level descriptions in the national curriculum. They should use their knowledge of a child’s work over time and across a range of genres to judge which level description is closest to the child’s performance. They should take into account written, practical and oral work as well as classroom work, homework and the results of informally administered tests taken in class. Teachers should consider the level descriptions of the attainment targets immediately above and below the level awarded to confirm which level is the closest match to the child’s performance. There is no requirement to determine a sub-level.”

This is one reason why I will continue to invest HWCS time and expertise in liaison with our Cluster feeder schools: we need a mutual understanding of what each phase is doing, the pressures on them, their respective pedagogy and, dare I say it, the potential weaknesses, gaps and pitfalls in the current system.

I recommend that everyone has a look at the Year 6 Reading Test for 2014 Reading Tests Levels 3-5 which featured a history item on the introduction of the potato into Europe, a piece of Science writing on the octopus, and an extract from Jack London’s novel of 1901, set in the Canadian frontier: White Fang. This one test will have gone a long way towards determining the English Levels and the mean levels for every Year 7 child that you teach, which in turn determines their progress and attainment targets across the curriculum, be you a Geography teacher, a PE teacher or a Design & Technology teacher. Take some time to look at the mark-scheme. You will note that a child’s writing ability is not as critical as you might expect in this test, for demonstrating their reading understanding at KS2 – which is quite different from what we know about revisions to Key Stage 4 examinations (all subjects, not just English).

There are plenty of HWCS students who come to us considerably behind in what might simplistically be referred to as ‘the basics’. I have considerable sympathy for my Primary colleagues – imagine Sixth Form Colleges blaming us for the fecklessness of some of our students at the end of KS4! Nevertheless, we all have a vested interest in supporting improvements in literacy and numeracy in Key Stages 1 & 2. In the meantime – sorry to be a stuck record! – we need to address these basic skills ourselves in conjunction with our subject specialisms.

Nicky Morgan wants to get us back to the top of the international league tables by 2020. The latest Pisa league table, which ranks the test results of 15-year-olds from 65 countries, puts the UK at 26th for maths and 23rd for reading. We have a long way to go!

The 2014 national examination league tables were published last week and there were many positive indicators for HWCS, they also point to the challenges ahead and link to some of the points I have just been making about progress in Key Stage 3.

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On the soon-to-be-defunct Attainment measure (unless one is a school which is in peril of falling below the “floor standard”: i.e. fewer than 40% of pupils achieve five or more GCSEs at grade A*-C or equivalent, including GCSEs (or iGCSEs) in both English and mathematics – regardless of context) HWCS achieved 61% 5 *-C (inc. English & Maths) which puts us at 22nd out of the 74 state secondary schools in Hampshire. Turning to the Progress measures: the percentage of HWCS leavers (the Class of 2014) making expected progress in Maths (70%) placed us in the top 20 in the County table, whereas in English (85%) we were in the top 5.

It is easy to by cynical about ‘league tables’ and you can slice them and dice them in different ways, but they do tell us something.

Food for thought, colleagues!

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