February 2, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
This weekend, the Conservatives launched a new policy that demands that children are able to perform a variety of literacy and numeracy tasks by the end of their primary schooling. Whilst being wary of what exactly will be on that list, and wary of how they enforce that, I can’t see why those measurements shouldn’t be encouraged.
The main subjects that I teach are Economics and Politics. I get students at the start of their sixth form at 16. However, engaged they are in the subject, however hard they work, if they are not strong at the basics of literacy and numeracy they cannot achieve the highest grades in my subjects. This is why I have often said that English and Maths teachers should be paid a lot more, because it is the work they do that fundamentally underpins what my A-level students can achieve.
I have also often said that the work of primary school teachers are absolutely vital to our country, because they are the people who teach our children to read, write and add up. This is why, for instance, the statistics on primary school enrolment in developing countries is just so important, because that is the age where children learn to do the things that can help them make their way in the world. For instance, if we want a sub-Saharan African country to forge its way in the world, its employees need to be able to operate complex machinery. If they can’t read or write they simply can’t do that.
We are, of course, not a Sub-Saharan African country, but we are in an interesting position as a developed country. According to OECD research, we are the ONLY developed country where 55-64 year olds have better literacy and numeracy skills than 16-24 year olds. This, apart from explaining why employment amongst the older age group has risen and the younger age group is falling, is terrifying in terms of the long-term prospects both for our economy, but also, on a broader social level, on the ability of our young people to be productive enough to justify the higher wages that they would like to command. We need to do better, and it starts back when they are younger, when the building blocks for literacy and numeracy need to be in place.
Those building blocks are what the Conservative Party appear to be trying to name. These aren’t, by the way, just building blocks for education, but building blocks for life. Not just building blocks for being a successful producer, but a successful consumer too. For being able to work out if you are getting a good deal in a supermarket or when buying a financial product, for being able to understand your bills and for helping your children with their education.
So, when Education Secretary Nicky Morgan announced yesterday that a Conservative Government would expect all pupils at age 11 to pass tests in their times tables up to 12, long division and complex multiplication, I am all in favour of that. When they add that children should be able to read a full novel, and write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar, I can’t see the problem with that. Being able to do that will help them for the rest of their lives, let alone the next seven years of education. Morgan says, and I agree, that “giving every child the chance to master the basics and succeed in life is a fundamental duty of any government.” Despite a Conservative politician saying that, I’m not sure even the most intransigent of Union leaders can argue.
Where they might argue is the next part of the Conservatives’ paper, which says that should a school fail to get every pupil to pass their times tables and writing test for two years running they will face being take over by new leadership teams and forced to become academies. I fear that this bit gives enough of an ideological bent to the proposals to help the Unions, normally wary of any attempt to hold teachers to account, undermine these plans.
I hope not. I hope that the Conservatives will negotiate on that part so that they can push through the skills that have to be learned. These standards are not a Michael Gove-ian insistence on learning certain facts that might back up his patriotic view of British history. These are skills that everyone needs for life. So let’s give them to our children.