NC08: Memorandum submitted Jolly Learning Ltd
The National Curriculum has sadly not raised standards. This submission looks at the fundamental basis under which it was conceived and recommends changes.
Introduction to the Submitter
Christopher Jolly is the publisher of the Jolly Phonics programme, the leading synthetic phonics programme, which is used in the majority of primary schools.
1. It is now 18 years since the National Curriculum was launched in 1990, which make it possible to see the effects on children who have been through it. The same is true in the primary years for the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies which were launched 10 years ago in 1998.
2. Professor Peter Tymms of the University of Durham, the leading authority on standards in education, using a wide range of measures, sees little improvement in reading standards of 11 year olds over this period.
3. In international tests the ranking of England has fallen in recent years. In the PIRLS study of 10 year olds reading ability, England fell from 3rd in 2001 to 19th in 2006. Similarly in the PISA study of 15 year olds reading ability the UK fell from 7th to 17th.
4. A characteristic of government curriculum advice is not just its launch, but its huge and inexorable growth. Whereas the National Curriculum of 1995 had 62 pages (for literacy and numeracy) the requirement today includes Letters and Sounds (236 pages), the Primary Framework (135 pages) and the Early Years Foundation Stage (168 pages) an over 8-fold increase.
5. Why has all this effort (and expense) apparently had no effect on achievement? It is possible to make specific criticisms, for instance that the literacy strategy rejected synthetic phonics for far too long (now largely rectified with Letters and Sounds) or that it is over-complex (teachers do find remarkably difficult to follow). However the main concern in this submission is more fundamental.
6. The underlying policy is one of ministers being relentless in driving up standards and in developing the policies to do so. This has had two effects.
7. The first effect is that teachers have had their focus diverted from the achievement of their children to the delivery of a prescription. Time and again one hears of teachers who suspend their judgement and instead follow what the various curricula tell them to do because then they 'can't be blamed'. Local Authority advisors have a record of taking government policy literally and gold-plating it. Fear of Ofsted also runs high.
8. The second effect is on the non-contact educational establishment who have been adept at taking over the agenda. Effectively the producer interest has prevailed. Each new published curriculum has been weaker than the rhetoric had suggested. It has been driven by the need to achieve consensus, rather than to seek excellence. Each one is developed by a new group, and so conflicts with previous curricula are commonplace. Government ministers are not able to exert the editorial control needed. Moreover the curricula are directed at schools. Largely unscathed are the teacher training colleges, academic researchers and remedial education providers, some of whom perform well, but others less so.
9. Missing from all this is the sense of a pull from the consumer or beneficiary. Teachers are well aware of the collective view of the parents but they have not been encouraged or enabled to use that as their driving force. The role of teachers in meeting the needs of parents has effectively been reversed to one of meeting the requirements of the state.
10. It is not just teachers to whom this applies. In my role as publisher I am often asked if our material complies with the latest curriculum document. If I explain that it is not exactly the same I am asked "why not?", and "when will it?". Such conformity stifles innovation and could have prevented the recent adoption of synthetic phonics.
11. The claim that strong central guidance is a guarantee of standards is not supported by our experience. In a survey carried out in 2005 for my company by IPSOS-RSL, a research company, 68% of teachers said they used Jolly Phonics, our synthetic phonics programme, and only 40% said they used the government's Progression in Phonics, the phonics element of the National Literacy Strategy. It meant that most teachers had decided to use a synthetic phonics programme when the government advice at that time was for analytic phonics. Even if their use of synthetic phonics was not as effective as it could be, they had already decided to make that change on the balance of the evidence available. Their choice was vindicated by the Literacy Strategy's subsequent conversion to synthetic phonics.
12. The experience of my company in publishing a synthetic phonics programme suggests that it is indeed possible to make substantial productivity gains in educational achievement. Such gains are not dependent on increased funding but do require a change of practice. Any assertion that educational achievement cannot be constantly improved is not supported by our experience.
13. An over-emphasis on the curriculum may have masked many other issues in school organisation that could raise achievement through good information and the delegation of responsibility to teachers and the school. Examples would be: setting, split intake (when some children are obliged to start school in January, and even April), and remedial teaching.
14. It is the recommendation of this submission that government should bring to an end the programme of National Curricula and National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. In its place should come a programme of informative and research documents aimed at giving teachers the information to make such decisions for themselves. As a key part of such documents it is recommended that they carry a named author.
15. Such a policy would mean that the recent report on the teaching of reading by Jim Rose would be primarily to inform teachers, with a summary sent to each of them, rather than to inform government.
16. As part of such a policy it is recommended that the role of the teacher is seen as one which is focussed on meeting the expectations of parents. The role of government, of teacher training colleges, of Ofsted, publishers and others will be to enable teachers to meet that expectation as fully as possible.