(Awduresau Cymru Publishing)
LITERACY & NUMERACY IN PRIMARY SCHOOLS IN WALES –
CLOSING THE GAP BETWEEN LEARNING AND THE EDUCATION SYSTEM
Below is a paper I wrote in 2015, and which I have submitted to the various Welsh Government Ministers since that time.
You may decide to read it, and perhaps let me know your thoughts.
EDUCATING THE CHILD, NOT WEIGHING THE PIG
by Alana Davies BA, Cert Ed
I am a professional in the field of education, and I firmly believe there is a need for a fundamental change in Welsh Government policies regarding the primary school curriculum and its assessment.
I have a successful track record in education, from Early Years to Higher Education. As a practitioner, I trained as a primary school teacher at a time when the activity-based, child-centred approach – the forerunner of the Foundation Phase - was introduced. I have a BA degree from the Open University which included the study of the understanding, development and use of mathematical thinking; I have taught 7-16 year olds privately, as well as 16+ and adults in Further Education for over 34 years, and in Higher Education within the Open University. For many years I was in positions of influence and authority in the education field.
My particular expertise and experience is in the teaching of mathematics, and I will focus on the teaching, learning and assessment of numeracy. However many of the generic issues and problems also apply to the teaching, learning and assessment of literacy.
Below, I set out my perception of:
1. the problem
2. the causes
3. the solutions
1. THE PROBLEM
Teaching & Learning
Too many children leaving primary school do not have an understanding of the basics of number.
Besides teaching adults, I teach mathematics to children from ages eight to sixteen and have become increasingly concerned – indeed alarmed – at the lack of understanding of those elements of numeracy that are essential to the development of the subject, i.e.
• The four rules of number
• Fractions, decimals and percentages
• Ratios & proportion
Without these basics, our children will find it increasingly challenging – and stressful – to cope with numeracy and mathematics at higher levels, and to cope with the subjects that need these skills.
I see children in years 7, 8 and 9 in comprehensive schools who do not know whether a question requires them to add or divide; who do not know how to multiply or divide by 10; who do not know the difference between 12 divided by 3 and 3 divided by 12 – or indeed that there is a difference. Children who have been taught ‘tricks’ rather than a method of calculation they should understand. My research to date, and anecdotal evidence from my considerable personal contacts in primary and secondary schools, tells me that this is not just my experience as a tutor, but is representative of many children leaving primary school.
I am aware of the measures put in place by the Welsh Government to address these shortfalls, and I have no doubt that its aim is the right one – to raise standards and improve pupils’ performance. However I feel that the measures are not working, and that opportunities are being missed. New proposals put forward by The Donaldson Report (1), while hailed as exciting and new, seem to be a re-working of current methodology with new terminology, and despite the introduction of the Literacy & Numeracy Framework, we seem to have made limited progress with improving the skills levels of too many of our young people
My concerns echo a 2013 report by Estyn, ‘Numeracy in key stages 2 and 3: a baseline study’, (2) which states that ‘…pupils in half of Wales' secondary schools and 40% of primary schools have weak numeracy skills, and that children struggle with basic sums, such as multiplying…’. The report says ‘…schools should provide more opportunities for pupils to use their skills. Some pupils seen during inspections found it difficult to carry out basic sums, such as fractions, percentages and decimals.’
In a follow-up report by Estyn – ‘Numeracy in key stages 2 and 3: an interim report November 2014’ (3) it is noted that in over half of the primary and secondary schools inspected in 2013-2014, pupils’ numerical skills are ‘at best average’, and pupils’ numerical skills were judged to be only adequate or unsatisfactory. While pupils can apply the numeracy skills that they have, they are often limited by ‘the low levels of their mathematical understanding and skills’. And significantly, it is reported that ‘pupils identify division, percentages, ratio, fractions and metric measures as areas of mathematics they often find difficult’.
I am not talking about a handful of children; I am talking about too many. I am not talking about the 20% of children who have historically – anecdotally recorded since the 1944 Education Act - struggled to understand or manipulate numbers. They are still there, in every class in every school. But there are more and more children struggling now. There are more and more parents who don’t know what and how their children are being taught, more and more of them looking for private tutors, and more and more private tutoring centres being set up. While there will always be parents who want to give their children ‘a little extra help’ whether or not it’s needed, there are now many less affluent parents looking for private tuition to ensure that their children can cope with school assessments and tests, and this should not be necessary in a state-school system.
Nor should we forget the effect on teachers. The quality of teaching, and of the teachers themselves, must of necessity be of the highest standard, and if this is not the case then it needs to be addressed. However we cannot put the blame for under-performance of children on teachers. They are being judged on the results of their classes as though their charges are automatons, able to perform at a certain level at a certain age. Their self esteem, and ability to use their professional integrity and creativity, has been eroded by the constant pressure of new initiatives and changes of direction. And all this in an environment of insufficient teaching time and increasing beaurocracy. This must surely be one of the causes of the current crisis in the teaching profession. The rate of new teachers leaving in the first few years of their qualifying is high, and vacancies for head teacher posts are often receiving few or no applicants.
2. THE CAUSES
So what seems to be the Welsh Government’s answer to these problems? Test them. And test them again. Test them so they know how good or how poor they are. How good – or how poor – the teachers are, the schools are. And then what? What happens to those who don’t come up to the mark? Is there more time allocated to them? Are they given a chance to catch up on the learning they have clearly missed? What chance is there of that, when there are so many subjects, so many teams, so many awards, so many projects, so many extra-curricular activities they are expected to take part in? No, we just test them. And maybe they have to repeat a year, doing so much damage to confidence and self esteem.
And what happens to those who do well? Do they really receive the more advanced teaching they may need? What time does the teacher have to do this in any meaningful way?
Having removed SATs from Primary schools in Wales, children from Year 2 to Year 6 now undergo the National Literacy & Numeracy Tests. This continues up to Year 9 in the Comprehensive schools. For anyone who has not seen – let alone tried – these tests, I urge you to do so. One of the test papers is entitled Reasoning.
Here is one of the more straight-forward questions in the sample reasoning test for Year 7 children i.e. 12-year-olds.
The question doesn’t say how many sweets are in the machine, or whether there is the same number of sweets of each colour. It doesn’t say how the machine works – maybe I can choose the colour of sweet? Maybe a shop assistant can serve the sweets from the machine, in which case I can simply ask for 2 sweets of the same colour?
These are questions that could be asked by the brightest children.
There are so many assumptions of knowledge, experience and understanding in this question, and in my view, not enough information or explanation. And surely children need the tools i.e. the numerical skills and the experience that comes with practice before they can be expected to cope with this?
ii. Data, Data, Data
I understand the need to collect data. I understand that it’s important to know how children are doing, how schools and teachers are doing, and how Wales is doing on the education front.
But the collection and interpretation of data seems to have taken over from what we should know is the right thing to do, and has taken the focus away from children as individuals, with issues of their own. A percentage figure of attainment is meaningless if the cohort is small and is radically changed by one child’s sickness or – heaven forbid - lack of understanding. It does not take into account the barriers that a child may have to overcome simply to get to school, or the great effort that may have been expended – on the part of the child and the teacher – to move a tiny step forward. That tiny step can be a huge achievement for the child, but where does that figure in the relentless quest for Estyn’s ‘excellence’?
So what does Welsh Government do with all the data they collect? They make comparisons. They compare year group with year group, school with school, local authority with local authority. They compare Wales with England, UK with Korea. The PISA test was the ultimate worthless comparison. Initially it compared a few children from a handful of self-selecting schools in Wales with children across other countries, many of which educate their children in a very different way to that of the UK. Wales didn’t have to do it. We had a choice. What happened? Not surprisingly, Wales did badly. But the PISA results set the tone for education in Wales for the next few years. As well as the National Curriculum, GCSEs and A levels, Literacy & Numeracy Framework, SATs or equivalent, teachers now had to prepare the children for the PISA tests. It was THE most important thing for teachers to concentrate on. Oh, and don’t forget well-being, special needs, tackling childhood obesity, the environment, Welsh language …
PISA tests (4) are taken by a sample of 15 year olds in Wales, with age, rather than year group, being the decisive factor.
Wales’ scores in 2012 represent the following changes from 2009:
• A decrease of 4 points in Mathematics
• A rise in 4 points in Reading
• A decrease of 5 points in Science
The overall changes since 2006 when Wales first participated in PISA are as follows:
• A 16 point fall in Mathematics
• A 1 point fall in Reading
• A 14 point fall in Science
An emphasis on these tests does not appear to be helping to raise standards in our schools.
A view put forward by NASUWT Cymru (5) is that ‘The Welsh Government’s preoccupation with PISA-style questions focuses attention on a narrow range of knowledge and skills, rather than on the full range of knowledge and skills that pupils need to develop. … It is very clear that the main motivation is to improve Wales’ performance in PISA tests’ and this is a view with which I must agree. It would appear that some of the government’s answers are part of the problem.
iii) The Curriculum
The biggest cause of the problem, in my view, is the primary school curriculum. It is simply too full. There just isn’t time to embed a real understanding, a real grasp of the basic numeracy and literacy skills with so little time available to spend on these vital subjects. To add to the problem, children are often taken out of classes, including mathematics classes, for additional reading, music, choir practice, drama, concert preparation and for other reasons.
The lack of time for teachers has led to a number of consequences. Too often gimmicks and tricks are being used in the teaching of mathematics instead of a proper understanding of a topic; homework is often not given, or not being marked by the teacher but by classroom peers, with no feedback. And crucially, there just is not the time for the practice of skills, so essential to allow a real and deep understanding of concepts.
3. THE SOLUTIONS
‘You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.’ By the same token, you don’t improve a child’s understanding by testing and testing and testing. So let’s stop weighing the pig, and start looking at the child. My proposal has 3 great features:
• It’s simple
• It’s cheap – or free
• It will work
Here’s how it goes.
A New Curriculum
1. Strip out virtually everything from the primary curriculum except literacy and numeracy.
This will not take us back to the dark ages. It will not disadvantage our children. It will not be the end of the world as we know it.
At present, literacy and numeracy are included – ‘embedded’ – into every lesson in every subject. This is a worthy aim, reflecting real-life situations, and I would certainly support this approach at secondary level. However, until the skills themselves are understood, practiced, embedded, it is unrealistic and unfair to expect a child to apply them to other disciplines.
I propose that we reverse the process, whereby other subjects can be brought in as vehicles for teaching literacy & numeracy, but it is the literacy or numeracy that would be the focus. It’s easy enough to ensure that a piece of reading has a content about history, or geography, or RE, or science, etc. Mathematics is an applied science, and can use any number of examples that bring in biology, physics, chemistry, sociology, geography – the list goes on. This happens now of course – but within very limited time constraints. In addition, an approach which focuses on literacy and numeracy would allow teachers the scope to use their creativity in planning lessons. And the additional time would allow for sufficient practice. Not merely repetition, but reinforcement through doing, with quality marking and full constructive feedback. It’s not enough for a child to know he or she is wrong; s/he needs to know why, and what s/he can do next time to improve. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But too often it’s not happening, because of the lack of time.
If children can read and write and manipulate numbers by the age of 11, they will be prepared – really prepared – to tackle any subject at secondary level. Far from holding them back, far from limiting their knowledge, the emphasis on Literacy & Numeracy would open new vistas for them.
There would be implications of course; primary teachers would need to ensure that they are up to the task of delivering these two core subjects to the depth and understanding needed. This may be addressed by sharing good practice across staff, and across schools, but there is little doubt that further training would be needed by a proportion of primary teachers.
Should this model be implemented, I would also expect there to be a weekly or fortnightly session of each of the subjects of science, PE, RE, and Welsh. I would expect IT to be used as a tool in the teaching of subjects rather than a subject itself, and the Welsh language as a natural inclusion in everyday classroom conversation. *
Standards & Assessment
Professional standards would need to be put in place, ensuring that all schools were aiming for the same goals. While there would be guiding principles as to what standards should be achieved at various stages in individual skills and/or topics, these would be something to aim for rather than hoops through which to jump. These standards would in effect become the new National Curriculum for Wales.
Assessments, both formative and summative, would be in the hands of the teaching professionals – the teachers. Head teachers, as the managers, would ensure that standards in the school are maintained, and that teaching, learning, and on-going assessment were carried out as natural elements of the curriculum. As at present, Local Authorities within consortia would oversee the quality of teaching and learning.
Secondary schools would need to trust the assessments of the primary schools. Active links between primary and secondary schools will help to ensure this, although individual secondary teachers will often wish to assess children in their own way, as they do at present.
It is easy to see why the term ‘political football’ is often used with reference to education. Education is used to criticise and berate opposing parties, ministers, governments. Targets are too high or not high enough; Measures are too strict or not strict enough; the public is told by various factions that achievement is never high enough, and that standards are always falling. The media join in the debates, and tell our young people every year that the qualifications they’ve worked so hard for are in effect not worth the paper they’re written on. It’s a constant state of ‘ours are better than yours’ or ‘we would do better than you’. Playground politics, but having a huge – and negative – effect on our young people.
Politicians react to such criticism – particularly if it’s likely to affect election outcomes. They react by introducing changes, initiatives, policies. Often there is no time to see if one initiative works before another – different - one is introduced. To see the real effect of a change in policy on the education of a child, we would need to wait until the child has gone through its schooling, currently lasting between 11 and 13 years, but that rarely happens. Sometimes it’s the same children that have been on the receiving end of changes year after year, and we wonder why they are not achieving as well as they should. Governments need to leave teachers to teach and children to learn.
There is clearly a need for a person or organisation to have an over-arching responsibility for education in Wales, but I do not believe this should be a politician. Neither should it be an appointed advisor to a politician if he or she is employed to make recommendations to a particular political party.
My solution? Appoint an independent person – a Regulator, an Ombudsman, a Commissioner, or a yet-to-be-named position. He or she would be appointed by the government of the day, with input from all political parties, and most importantly, input from teacher representatives. Ensure that the appointment is independent of whatever party is in power at any one time, and enshrine this in law. Then leave him or her alone to get on with the job. Of course there would be reports as to progress, but any follow-up actions would be agreed between the Regulator and the professionals.
Closing the generational educational gap
Finally, we need to set the challenge of education in the context of the family. The first teacher of a child is the parent, or parent figure. No matter how unconsciously, how ineptly, how poorly equipped, the parent is the one who teaches the child to speak, to play, to interact with others. The family sets the standard for what is acceptable, and what is the norm. For the child born into a family of educated parents where language and relationships are important, and where aspiration is the norm, these early lessons set her or him on a higher rung of the learning ladder than the child whose parents do not have similar skills.
This is self evident – nothing new. We must do all we can to raise the skills of parents, to allow lessons learnt in the home to complement those learnt at school, and to ensure that ambition and aspiration is inculcated in all our children from an early age. Sadly this is not always the case, and even with the best of intentions, many parents can slip through the net. It is by educating parents that we break the vicious cycle of low achievement and lack of ambition, and at the same time this allows parents to become positive role models as learners.
We must ensure that education for adults is available to all at affordable costs. Traditionally this has been delivered by Further Education colleges – the ‘second chance’ colleges. Links between FE colleges, schools and parents have been well established in Family Learning classes for parents, but these are now under threat because of drastic funding cuts. Training for literacy, numeracy and vocational skills must be available if we are to break the intergenerational cycle of poor basic skills. Such provision for adults must not only be protected from funding cuts, but expanded.
So the main thrusts of my proposals are these:
• Strip out the primary curriculum of all but literacy & numeracy, with the caveats above *
• Trust the professionals
• Take education out of the hands of politicians
• Educate the parents
I urge Welsh Government to seriously consider these proposals with a view to making a radical change to our educational policies in Wales. I urge politicians to take this brave step, to dare to be different from England, and to put our children first.
Alana Davies BA, Cert Ed
(1) Independent Review of Curriculum and Assessment Arrangements in Wales - http://gov.wales/topics/educationandskills/schoolshome/curriculuminwales/curriculum-for-wales/?lang=en
(2) Numeracy in key stages 2 and 3: a baseline study - June 2013, http://www.estyn.gov.uk/english/docViewer/283073.7/numeracy-in-key-stages-2-and-3-a-baseline-study-june-2013/?navmap=30,163,
(3) Numeracy in key stages 2 and 3: an interim report November 2014; http://www.estyn.gov.uk/english/docViewer/337974/numeracy-in-key-stages-2-and-3-an-interim-report-november-2014/?navmap=30,163
(4) Achievement of 15-Year-Olds in Wales: PISA 2012 (National Assembly for Wales Dec 2013, enquiry no: 13/3210
(5) NASUWT Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – Guidance 12/07060 Wales