Failing the Literacy Test

The principles of Curriculum for Excellence continue to take a bashing from right-wing reactionaries in the traditional media, and from others who feel their positions of authority threatened, not only by the notion of a curriculum for all rather than just an academic elite, but by definitions of intelligence which go beyond an ability to remember “facts” to the capacity for critical and independent thought. In today’s Sunday Times, Joan McAlpine is critical of the idea of a portfolio of evidence to support the development of literacy and numeracy skills, preferring instead to put “the straightforward business of education” to the test – literally. She continues by citing as support for her grand theory the former First Minister Jack McConnel’s radical plan to re-introduce arithmetic at Standard-Grade as a “sensible idea”. Strange bedfellows indeed – until you consider the political ideologies of their respective institutions.

McAlpine contends that “an obvious way to improve literacy and numeracy would be to teach it well.” So there we have it. Literacy and numeracy reduced to a single entity, and one which should be “taught well”. A hugely complex issue reduced to a few basic rules and tested at the end of the process by a well-crafted examination paper. Improving the nation’s literacy and numeracy in a series of simple, carefully delivered lessons.

Joining the rush to condemn the idea of a portfolio before it has even been fully explored is Carole Ford, president of School Leaders Scotland, who, writing in this week’s TES, records the serious doubts expressed by the association of headteachers about the ability of schools and teachers to cope with the demands of a folio, claiming that the idea of gathering evidence of performance in literacy and numeracy from across the school is impractical, “will inevitably result in pupils drafting and redrafting work”, involves the judgement of “non-specialist” teachers, and is not a “robust system of assessment.”

These claims should not go unchallenged. I totally agree that the practice of drafting and redrafting of folio work in Standard-Grade English has been one of the most negative and depressing features of our curriculum in recent times, a consequence of a system where the end grade assumes an importance completely disproportionate to the means of achieving it. However, I don’t accept that there is any “inevitability” about this whatsoever, as the best teachers have always realised how counter-productive this can be, in terms of de-motivating pupils, especially those who are already disengaged from a curriculum which offers them very little. And how patronising to teachers of subjects other than English and mathematics (I’m assuming, perhaps wrongly, that these are the specialists in literacy and numeracy McAlpine and Ford have in mind) to suggest that they are “non-specialists” in the development of literacy and numeracy skills. The illustration McAlpine uses in her article of a geography teacher “taking time out from map reading to explain percentages” at once demonstrates perfectly her failure to grasp how learning and teaching have already moved on in our schools over the past few decades, and the failure of those few remaining teachers in our schools who, sharing her mindset, fail to recognise their broader responsibilities.

Those people who still believe that more tests, “robust measures” and target-setting, disguised, to paraphrase McAlpine, in the camouflage of accountability, have had ample time to prove their theories correct, and they have failed miserably. Show me the test which is going to deliver the literacies our young people need to be successful in this century, not the last one, and I will eat my proverbial hat. It’s time to move on and look at the range of ways, including technological ones, which are available to our teachers and young people to allow them to develop and to demonstrate their literacy skills.

10 thoughts on “Failing the Literacy Test

  1. Neil W says it all:

    “If you hate change you’ll like irrelevance even less…. ”

    Let the dinosaurs die out – this is their last big roar before they realise what the rest of us DO know – that change is not coming but is here NOW and we have to deal with it or our students will suffer.

    “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds”. Albert Einstein.

  2. Hi Dave,
    We mustn’t underestimate those who have a vested interest in the status quo. Those who see the education system as a selection process, separating bright pupils from stupid ones, will be determined to hold on to that system since they are the ones who benefit from it. I really believe the issue is one of social justice, and I don’t think that’s putting it too strongly.

  3. Hi Bill,

    As always a thought-provoking post.

    The idea of a portfolio of work (hopefully an electronic one) often fills folk with dread in terms of the organisation, the risk of plagiarism and accountability, and also the time it takes to complete. However, these fears are surely embedded within traditional notions of what encompasses a portfolio. I hope that whatever form this takes, it will include a variety of media showcasing an individual’s skills in literacy that they have developed not only throughout their time in formal education, but also through their achievements outwith the school environment. I would hope that this form would encourage the realisation of all four capacities being amalgamated in a final presentation.

    I disagree with Dave regarding letting the dinosaurs die out. A lot of those who would agree with the critics mentioned in the blog post are young and new-ish teachers. Some agree with these critics because the current education system worked for them and they therefore do not see why there needs to be change. In many ways, this viewpoint is understandable, but is one that needs to be challenged when one examines how the education system continues to build obstacles to pupils achieving their true potential – and more importantly being recognised in achieving this potential.

    I long for the day when success is not measured by one’s ability to remember information and recite it in 90 minutes; but where literacy skills are measured through all modes of literacies thoughout all stages of the curriculum.

  4. Thought-provoking comments as well Andy. I can also understand the fears in terms of workload, and I think this is based on an assumption that the teacher will be responsible for the portfolio when in fact it has to be the learner. The outcomes say “I can……..” not “my teacher can…….”


  5. Vis-a-vis McAlpine’s article one can do no better than quote RL Stevenson:

    “Beware of your sham impartialists, wolves in sheep’s clothing, simpering honestly as they suppress”

    There is a palpable sense of dread on the part of the author that the encouragement and promotion of a deeper, holistic – dare I say democratic? – understanding and application of literacy represents a challenge to orthodoxies and existing orders, be they educational, social, cultural or – not least – political…

    Battle of Hastings – 1066 wasn’t it, Joan?

  6. “A lot of those who would agree with the critics mentioned in the blog post are young and new-ish teachers.”

    Andy makes a point I should have remembered actually; there ARE quite a few younger teachers who seem unable to make the jump to using ICT or accepting that the system they were taught under has changed, or rather needs to change soon. I find this depressing as I’m the ‘old fart’ who gets introduced by my Heidie to visitors as the ICT expert in my school, yet I hear my colleagues 20 years younger asking ‘what is the point of twitter?’ or ‘why should I use a wiki?’ By the same token I have young newly qualified ones who are keen as mustard and want onto GLOW now but can’t due to the dinosaurs slowing deployment etc.

    I look forward to the battles to come!

  7. Great post Bill, and it’s good to see such an influential person in education as yourself countering the rather reactionary drivel from Joan McAlpine so very well.
    I found out yesterday that our community nursery have been using a sort of ePortfolio to hold their evidence of achievement on transfer across to their primary schools and have been building these for over a year now !!

    Perhaps we have much to learn from cross sectoral approaches in this, as in so much else….


  8. Hi Jaye,
    Thanks for your comments. I’m flattered that you see me as an influential person in education – I wish. I’m really interested though in what you are saying about the community nursery and cross-sectoral approaches. We need to get better at charting progress in learning, especially at transitions, which is one of the key areas I hope to be working in. Look forward to sharing with you what you will be doing in your new role and if we can work together in any capacity I would welcome that.


  9. Hi Bill,

    Great article! Am I imagining an increasing vitriol as you throw off your shackles?

    I agree totally with your points, and with the points made by Dave, Andy, Alan and Jaye (although the dreaded word ‘clique’ whispers in my ear, and I include myself in that – separate article).

    One point that I think could be developed further is Joan McAlpine’s idea that evidence gathered across a learner’s range of experience (within and without school) is not ‘robust’. What does this mean? Nothing.


  10. Vitriol? Certainly not. Sound reasoning and infallible logic only! The concept of robustness is an interesting one. Usually when you hear the term it means that teachers are about to be blamed for something else. I’m not really concerned about the “clique” of commentators as you describe it Gordon. The debate is open to anyone who cares to join in – the challenge is getting more people to realise that and to contribute.

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