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Is Level 4 A High Enough Key Stage 2 Target?

Is Level 4 A High Enough Key Stage 2 Target?

Raise literacy target in primary schools, says Ofsted chief

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, says the current benchmark is too low to ensure later success at GCSE

On 15th March 2012 Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, spoke out about his concerns regarding the KS2 SATs in English. He asserted that the current target of the average Yr6 student attaining Level 4 at the end of their time in Primary School is inadequate.  He based this viewpoint on research which apparently shows that 45% of students achieving Level 4c fail to attain a C grade or above in GCSE English.

In a speech he gave on the subject he said: |“It’s important to note that even achieving the current benchmark at the end of primary school is no guarantee of success.“Last year 45% of those pupils who just reached level 4c at the age of 11 did not achieve a grade C in their GCSE English exams. So one of the first questions we need to ask is whether the national end-of-primary-school target of level 4 is sufficiently high to provide an adequate foundation for success at secondary school.”

The speech coincides with the publication of an Ofsted report which |””finds that since 2008, there has been no overall improvement in primary pupils’ English learning. The report notes: “Many primary teachers – understandably, since most are not subject specialists – have a very limited understanding of the world of literature, including good-quality contemporary literature. “For example, over half the teachers involved in the research could name only one, two or no poets at all.” The lack of subject knowledge makes it difficult for them to identify more challenging books to study with older children, the report says.  It also means they are less able to teach children grammar, or explain the difference between standard English and slang.””

Is Level 4 A High Enough Key Stage 2 Target?

In our opinion there are numerous factors that must be taken into account regarding the statistics which Sir Michael has used as a basis for his argument.  And it is in no way certain that the current expected levels are wholly to blame for the situation he has highlighted.

  1. There are 3 sub-levels within the level 4 attainment band and it is possible that a high proportion of the 45% of students to whom he refers were border-line 3a students which means that they only just achieved a 4c and their skills would not have been strong enough to enable them to gain a C grade at GCSE without extra support.
  2. Further examination of the attainment figures for the 2011 KS2 SATs reveals that a disproportionately high number of boys failed to obtain Level 4. We were unable to analyse the data on sub-levels as this information has not been published.  But, we were able to establish that 23% of boys failed to achieve a Level 4 compared with 14% of girls.  Furthermore, this disparity grows substantially at GCSE level with 42% of boys and 27% of girls failing to gain the minimum C Grade.

In themselves these figures would suggest that the problem with achievement standards lies not with the Level 4 target at KS2, but with the curriculum and how it addresses boy’s learning needs with regard to literacy. As part of our attempt to see whether this is the case we analysed our own student records to compare the proportions of both genders attending for catch up tuition in various aspects of the English curriculum. During the past four years 69% of our English students have been boys.  Both our numbers and the Government published statistics would suggest that there may be some merit to this hypothesis. It would be helpful therefore, to ascertain what proportion of boys obtained a 4c and whether they formed a disproportionate number of 4c students.


How Do We Raise English Achievement Standards?

In order to understand how we can raise the achievement levels we must first pinpoint the reasons why boys are underachieving.  In our opinion the first problem is that children in the United Kingdom begin formal education too early.  It is worth noting that our motivation in this country for enrolling children in school at such an early age has nothing to with education.  According to the Cambridge Primary Review report of 2009 it dates back to 1870 and was designed to protect children from the |”malign influence of Victorian feckless parents – it was about child protection and social conditioning rather than learning. And it was an attempt to appease suspicious employers, who were worried that starting any later would remove their supply of juvenile workers. An early start meant an early school leaving age.” The report concludes that |“The assumption that an early starting age is beneficial for children’s later attainment is not well supported in the research and therefore remains open to question”. Our professional experience in both the state education system and as owners of a Kip McGrath Education Centre lead us to concur with this conclusion. Additionally, the OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings in reading for 2009 would also tend to support this argument. Of the top ten countries just three start their children’s formal education at aged five and five was the school starting age in just nine of the sixty-five participating nations. All the other countries start their children’s formal schooling at either six or seven. Furthermore, all three of the five year old school starting countries had dropped at least three places in the rankings since 2006 when the United Kingdom was ninth (The UK ranked 25th in 2009). It appears therefore, that we are pushing our children into school before they are ready simply because of outdated cultural criteria that are no longer applicable in the 21st Century.

This has particular relevance with regard to our current discussion because we are teaching boys to write before they have developed the motor skills they need to form their letters properly. They are unable to grip the pencil correctly when they start writing and it then becomes harder for them to change their technique as they get older because boys are naturally less adaptable. This creates an even greater problem for students with barriers to literacy such as those with dyslexia who need to be able to master joined-up writing as it aids with their learning. This is because we use several different parts of the brain for language and some students are unable to access all of them so the kinaesthetic element of joining letters allows them to remember the shapes of the words rather than the individual letters.

Starting school too early is just one of several aspects of the literacy curriculum that places boys at a disadvantage when it comes to learning English successfully. Their inability to adapt also plays out with the current overemphasis on teaching using synthetic phonics. Our recent blog Are Boys Now Reading As Well As Girls? discusses the important of access to a variety of tools for reading fluently. In this instance children are taught to read using phonics and then have to adapt their understanding of the rules of the English language as they get older. Once again boys’ lack of adaptability places them at a disadvantage.

Additionally, there is an overemphasis on the use of fiction in children’s books in school. The majority of boys are not interested in fiction and prefer to read non-fiction. As a result boys’ skills develop more slowly because they don’t gain as wide a vocabulary through reading because they read less frequently.  We believe that a simple solution to this would be to introduce a range of non-fiction books in subjects such as history, science and sport etc to accompany the story books already in use. This fictional bias extends into creative writing which again leaves boys at a disadvantage. We are concerned at this bias for two reasons:

  1. There is very little scope for being a professional writer in adulthood so whilst it is good to provide children with an opportunity to experience creative writing we believe the curriculum is focused too heavily on this area of writing skills.
  2. Once again, boy’s lack of vocabulary hinders their ability to write as creatively as girls.

Consequently, we would question whether the failure of 45% of 4c students to achieve a GCSE C Grade is due to Primary Schools teachers not doing their job properly as per Sir Michael’s and Ofsted’s accusations. Neither are we convinced that Level 4 is too low a target per se. It appears more likely that hard-working teachers who are doing their best for students are being hindered by a curriculum and education system that is not designed to meet either children’s needs or Government targets in this vitally important area of learning.

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