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.