Facts go missing when Tories talk about primary schools

Trevor Fisher writes

The Conservative’s are running an attack strategy on primary school results blaming Labour for alleged failures. On February 1st Nicola Morgan launched a media offensive on the 3Rs. It was reported on the BBC News website that day under the heading ”Nicky Morgan announces ‘war on illiteracy and innumeracy’, which claims were not questioned. The key claim is that primary schools failed to teach the 3 Rs to up to a third of pupils – and this is the fault of Labour in the 1997- 2010 governments. The attack has an Orwellian flavour.

The assault started at the Tory conference with speeches from Secretary of State Nicky Morgan and Schools Minister Sam Gimayah. Gimayah claimed that that “more than a third of young people were leaving school ‘unable to read, write or do maths’, ie at age 16. But the main attack is on primary not school leavers. Nicky Morgan in her speech (available on the Conservative web site) attacked Labour’s record saying “13 years of Labour…. and 1 in every third child finished primary school unable to read, write or add up”. This was unqualified in any way.

Janet Downs of the (Local Schools Network) investigated, asking the UK Statistics Authority to comment. On December 4th Sir Andrew Dilnot replied giving the facts for school leavers and concluding the facts did not add up for Gimayah’s claim. He also critiqued Nicky Morgan and commented that while some children did not reach level 4, the vast majority did – the Key Stage 2 results showing that in May 2010 83% reached the level in reading, 79% in maths and 71% in writing. Dilnot copied the letter to Morgan, Gyimah, and to various civil servants.

This had no effect. On December 10th Morgan attacked Tristram Hunt in the Commons (Hansard col 894) saying “He ought to be thinking about the fact that under the previous Labour Government, one in three of our young people were leaving primary school unable to read and write”.

Andrew Dilnot then wrote directly to Morgan, giving a detailed and factual account of why this statement was wrong, finishing “”I think it would be appropriate for you to reconsider these comments. You may also wish to take advice on whether the official parliamentary record should be corrected”. Morgan replied dismissively, but subsequently has qualified statements by using the word “properly” in claims on pupil attainment in primary skills. The word is meaningless. (The letter of December 4th is on the UK Stats Authority site, as is the letter of December 18th)

Full Fact on December 18th 2014 commented on the letter from Dilnot, noting that 90% of pupils had “achieved level 3 or above in all the three core subjects…. this is not the picture of illiteracy Ms Morgan’s words conjure up, and she should correct the record”. Ms Morgan did not correct the record.

The Tories continued with the “War on Illiterary and Innumeracy campaign”, undeterred by the lack of evidence that the problems existed. This was launched on February 1st via the Sunday Times. More importantly it was picked up by the BBC, uncritically. The BBC news site that day reported Morgan threatening schools if they failed to get pupils through arbitrary tests. This suggested the pupils would not be affected but schools would be. Briefings suggested that heads would be sacked, but this is not on the record – and Labour has not demanded clarification.

The following day Cameron made his big speech on education, highlighting the 3Rs issue. The PM backed both Gyimah and Morgan, stating explicitly the Gyhimah position that “We inherited a system where far too many children left school without the qualifications and skills to get on. Some of them were barely able to read and write properly”,

He offered no evidence for this, nor for the statement aligned with Morgan’s position that

“We inherited a situation where one in three children left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly”. The use of the word ‘properly’ is meaningless, but was later defined by the DfE in a completely arbitrary way.

Heseltine chips in.

The claim that primary schools failed to produce the results, reached the press after the BBC Question Time on 19th February. Michael Heseltine opened the debate by arguing that 20 per cent of children leave primary school illiterate and innumerate, making the claim

“20% of the kids coming out of primary school this year will be by normal modern standards illiterate and innumerate”.

‘Normal modern standards’ is another meaningless concept, but the Daily Mirror on 20th February seemed to support it, commenting that 21% of pupils in England did not meet the target last year for reading, writing and mathematics combined” the target being Level 4. However there is no way that Level 3 is illiterate and innumerate, nor does a late developer have to hit targets at 11. Albert Einstein notably failed to do so.

The DFE told the Daily Mirror that the word ‘properly’ means ‘they do not achieve Level 4 by the end of primary school’. This is shifting the goalposts, but more importantly the numbers not reaching level 4 do not make one third, which is the political claim.

If Morgan goes ahead, the targets are not ones pupils will have to meet, but they will have consequences for schools. Rumours of heads being sacked followed the Morgan launch on February 1st, but have not been confirmed. What is clear is that the DfE told the Mirror on February 20th that failure had taken place, but now “thousands more children leave primary school having mastered the basics”. So why is there a need for a “War on illiteracy and innumeracy” except that there is an election coming up. With the exception of back dating the date of the Labour failure on the 3Rs to 2009, the official line from the DfE is that Blunkett’s literacy and numeracy hours and other efforts failed, Labour did nothing on literacy and numeracy, but the Tories did.

Labour’s failure to challenge this will backfire in the election if they do not act to correct this. More fundamentally, if politicians can made statements and are then rebuked by the official statistician and then refuse to make any public correction, how near are we to Orwellian politics?

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4 Comments on “Facts go missing when Tories talk about primary schools”

  1. pauljmartin2014 says:

    Bravo, Trevor!

  2. bassey355 says:

    So the nastiness of elections has begun! Well done Trevor in highlighting this. If ministers think that when 83% reached level 4 in reading, 79% in maths and 71% in writing this equates to “one in three children left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly” then we have to challenge their own ability at mathematics!

  3. John says:

    “If ministers think that when 83% reached level 4 in reading, 79% in maths and 71% in writing this equates to “one in three children left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly” then we have to challenge their own ability at mathematics!”

    It probably means at least that. At a minimum, 29% are unable to do all three of those things to level 4 standard. If any of the 71% who did meet the standard in writing are among the 17% and 21% who didn’t in reading and maths, that number will be higher. It’s entirely plausible that it could be 33% or more.

  4. terryloane says:

    As you say, bassey355, the pre-election nastiness has certainly begun. And of course if an untruth is repeated often enough, and by different members of the same political party/propaganda group, it can become an accepted fact – Orwellian indeed, Trevor.

    But there is something else really important and disturbing going on here that goes beyond mere pre-election politicking. Every time a politician, or an educator, bangs on about literacy and numeracy, they are reinforcing a dangerous message. They are reinforcing the notion that the only thing that really matters in education is ‘writing, reading and arithmetic’. And if you combine this narrow vision with the dominant mendacious narrative of ‘austerity’, then you make it all too easy for the public to accept a hollowed out, shrivelled up curriculum – Gradgrind for the 21st century. And if, as Trevor reminds us, heads feel they will be sacked if the 3Rs test results aren’t high enough, then it is inevitable that music, the arts, engagement and joy will all be given a low priority.

    Ken Robinson had the courage to say last year that dance and mathematics were equally important and should be given equal time in schools (https://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storyCode=6439343 ). “You live in your body all day long… Very few people, after school, use calculus or algebra.” And interestingly there is evidence that schools that help to develop children musically have better results with language and maths (Kelstrom, J. M. (1998). The untapped power of music: Its role in the curriculum and its effect on academic achievement. NASSP Bulletin, 82: http://bul.sagepub.com/content/82/597/34 ). So maybe the less we obsess about ‘literacy and numeracy’ the better children will become at language and maths.

    We need the courage to stop talking about literacy and numeracy and start talking about the importance of ensuring that each of us, children and adults alike, have access to rich educational opportunities. We all deserve education for creativity, education for democracy, education for personal and societal flourishing.