Magazine article NATE Classroom

Beyond the Crossroads (Part One)

Magazine article NATE Classroom

Beyond the Crossroads (Part One)

Article excerpt

English at the crossroads

Readers of this magazine may be aware that Ofsted published its latest report on English in schools last year. English at the crossroads1 reviewed evidence from over two hundred primary and secondary subject inspections over a three year period from 2005 and 2008. Although the national press typically tended to emphasise negatives in the report (Ofsted orders schools to brush up their English teaching), it actually contained much that was complimentary about English in schools.

We found that provision for English was at least good in well over half the schools we visited as part of the survey. Teaching was good or outstanding in most of the lessons seen across both phases and very few lessons observed by inspectors were inadequate. English was a popular subject with most pupils and the proportion of students who chose to study it in the sixth form remained very high.

We noted that standards had continued to rise at the end of the primary and secondary phases over the period covered by the report. However, we also pointed out that improvements in test and examination results had slowed since the early days of the National Strategies and that a new impetus is now needed if standards are to rise further. Where teaching was no better than satisfactory, inspectors judged that it did not enable lower-attaining pupils to make the good progress needed to catch up with their peers. Pupils who were negative about English found lessons dull and sometimes said that English had too little to do with their lives or interests outside school.

We were fortunate to visit a number of schools where provision for English was outstanding. This was at least partly the result of inspiring and visionary subject leadership. Inspectors found that the management of English has moved on a great deal in recent years with improvements in monitoring and self evaluation. The quality of leadership was not always as strong. However, in the outstanding schools, subject leaders had a clear vision for English and a strong sense of purpose, based on deeply held views about the nature of English and its importance for pupils.

Where provision was weaker, subject leaders introduced change in an uncritical way and did not have a clear enough understanding of where improvements were needed or how they might be achieved.

The report emphasised the gap in performance between the most effective schools and those that were merely satisfactory. In particular, the most effective schools provided a dynamic English curriculum that responded to changes in society and pupils' literacy needs. In my view, the key challenge at the moment for many schools is to develop a curriculum that meets the needs of all their pupils and builds on the significant changes in literacy and technology of recent years. I also believe that a lively, productive curriculum that makes full use of the new technologies has more chance of motivating those groups of pupils who have sometimes been turned off by the subject.

Building on good practice

Another theme of the report was that it has become increasingly difficult to identify and share existing best practice in English. Much recent support has understandably focused on schools in challenging circumstances or where standards are very low. Many local authorities no longer employ a subject adviser for English, the officer who has traditionally monitored and evaluated practice across schools and identified what works best in a local context. Many local authorities rely instead on consultants whose task is primarily to support the implementation of national strategies and to pursue centrally agreed training priorities. These consultants tend to work in either primary or secondary schools and are not always in a position to take an overview across phases. A number of questions arise:

* Who is responsible for the strategic thinking on English within local authorities? …

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