Why ‘Better Literacy and Numeracy for Young People’ is a Flawed Plan

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This article was written both as a think-piece and a message to urge those concerned for educational equality and quality issues to examine and make inputs on the draft plan entitled ‘Better Literacy and Numeracy for Young People‘ put forward by the Tánaiste and Department of Education and Skills last November.

The deadline for receipt of inputs on this draft plan is 31st January 2011, after which, ‘stakeholder consultation meetings’ will take place. Ways to make inputs on these proposals are noted at the end and are mentioned in the draft plan on page 53. The plan is available to read here.

Both as an academic and a citizen, I am highly concerned about the tone and direction of this plan, which I believe marks another counterproductive watershed for education quality and equality in Ireland. In her invitation to contribute to this draft plan, the Tánaiste states “literacy and numeracy are so important that I believe that we need to reappraise all aspects of our educational system to make sure that every child acquires these skills”. Nobody could disagree with the notion that literacy and numeracy skills permeate and strongly influence the quality of our lives. But the major concern I have with this plan is how narrowly issues of literacy and numeracy are focused: so narrowly, in fact, it is as if a vast number of enduring educational and social research findings never existed. Three concerns about the flawed nature of this plan are outlined below.

  • The first is the assumption the plan makes that education policy and ‘compensation for disadvantage’ measures are ‘all it takes’ to improve literacy and numeracy skills. Not only does this place inordinate and unfair responsibility on schools and teachers, it completely ignores the fact that doing something about wider socio-economic inequality in social and economic policies has a far greater impact on children and young people’s well-being and academic skills than education policy shifts alone. This education plan aspires to be Finnish in terms of literacy and numeracy achievement, while completely ignoring the Finnish social model and context. The Schools Like Ours initiative, which proposes to offer schools data on achievement of schools from similar socio-economic and ethnic contexts seems like a good idea for motivating schools to do better. But this only seems like a good idea because it does not lead us down the path of overt league tabling, which has shown to have disastrous results for learning quality and equality internationally. The Schools Like Ours initiative, which is to be used at primary and post-primary level (see p. 41) could be seen as the most clear acceptance of social (as well as literacy and numeracy) inequality and the most overt endorsement of primary school competition that the government has ever made. Think of the class politics: primary schools not 2 miles away from each other getting data that a ‘School Like Ours’ is better than a ‘School Like Theirs’. It is not insignificant that one of the shortest sections of the report deals with ‘parents and communities’. One of the most patronising recommendations of this section is to promote the importance of literacy skills and numeracy skills to parents using national media and associated local campaigns: literacy and numeracy skills in this view have officially become one’s responsibility, not one’s right.
  • The second concern I have is the definition of literacy that the plan rests on: while there is some degree of focus on developing technological literacy, the plan has no mention of developing critical literacy skills ‘across the curriculum’ that it references: children and young people (particular in primary and post-primary) are framed as workhorses and recipients of strategy implementation and tests, rather than thinkers, questioners, innovators and creators.
  • The third is a hugely flawed view of learning that this report – from the Department of Education and Skills no less – rests on: one which sees learning as happening in ‘blocks’ that may work to cancel each other out. Because of its crude view of existing issues and structures, the plan regards educating teachers, children and young people about literacy and numeracy as largely involving a trade-off with other aspects of learning. A notable proposal in this regard is that academic subjects will be discontinued in the Bachelor of Education degree in favour of academic subjects ‘more closely related to education’ (p. 19 of the draft plan). Certainly, there are huge fields of study on literacy and numeracy pedagogy that could be undertaken across one’s biography as a teacher or learner, and I hugely endorse such pursuits. But it is patently inaccurate to suggest that ‘other’ areas of learning do not inform one’s thinking and teaching skills. It is a matter of helping teachers and learners make explicit, critical connections between these areas, not trading one for the other.

Further to the third point (above), I find the following statement (p. 25) extremely worrying in terms of what it means for the narrowing of curricula and students’ voices:

“In recent years there have been demands from organisations, interest groups and various educators that additional emphasis should be placed in school curricula on such areas as social and life skills, environmental issues, arts and music education, scientific understanding, and numeracy among others… we have to recognise that the curricula cannot mediate all issues that are of relevance to young people. Including a broader range of issues, topics and subjects in school curricula inevitably has meant that the time available for the acquisition and consolidation of critical core skills has been eroded”.

This statement is patently misleading: for example, a study of the implementation of subjects such as Relationships and Sexuality Education in post-primary funded partly by the Department of Education (Mayock et al. 2007) demonstrated just how little attention is given to subjects that ‘don’t count’ in the post-primary system.

The plan goes on:

“We have to acknowledge that understanding and using literacy and numeracy are such core skills that time for their development must be safeguarded, sometimes by delaying the introduction of some curriculum areas and always by ensuring that teaching literacy and numeracy is integrated across the curriculum.”

This statement leads to a proposal to incorporate the time spent doing Drama into the teaching of English or Irish. What I would be concerned about –  again because of the failure to focus on children’s identities and critical literacy in this plan – is that the quite strong role that Drama plays in developing children and young people’s thinking skills and ability to relate interpersonally will be largely swept away.

As a final critique of this narrow vision, the plan wishes to “ensure that the reading tastes of boys are catered for in curricula at post-primary level” (p. 31). It is as if the research on how school settings reinforce and actually help create gendered tastes and identities never existed.

It is important to point out, in my view that the plan does aspire to develop the confidence and the skills of primary and post-primary teachers in terms of sophisticated literacy and numeracy teaching. There are also multiple issues around the restructuring of teacher education that require complex and in-depth debate. I see the move the plan makes to encourage all post-primary teachers to view themselves as teachers of language and literacy as very positive: increasing academic language proficiency amongst minority language students is important to their school success, as is the need to recognise the importance of one’s mother tongue to additional language development (noted on p. 36). It is also important that the report notes the need to communicate more effectively with parents on how their children are doing at school (p. 40).

However, the ‘relentless’ focus on literacy and numeracy that the plan aspires to is quite ill-conceived in the sense that it will be received into educational and social spheres which are already relentlessly competitive, emphasise the economic over the social, and the bureaucratic over the personal and interpersonal.

This plan will not deliver on the widespread overhaul of quality literacy and numeracy skills that it promises, as it ignores how literacy and numeracy are fundamentally social activities.

Please note that you can communicate your own thoughts on this plan by emailing

literacynumeracy@education.gov.ie or in writing to:

Secretary

National Literacy and Numeracy Implementation Group

Department of Education and Skills

Marlborough Street

Dublin 1

You can also leave a comment on the dedicated comment line for National Literacy and Numeracy Implementation Group: 01-889 6768

Dr. Karl Kitching is a Lecturer in the School of Education, University College Cork

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10 Responses

  1. William Wall

    January 18, 2011 12:57 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. The Government/Dept of Ed paradigm is a simple, computer-like model of learning that is founded on dodgy ‘cognitive skills’ theories. Furthermore the neoliberal model (which the Dept aspires to) is one in which the primary (and sometimes only) value in education is the economic one – the production of little corporation women and men fit to take their places in the corporate structure, willing to be discarded whenever necessary (eg downsizing) and ready to ‘down-skill’ as required. I’m constantly reminded of that old and flawed essay by Pearse – The Murder Machine. The last thing the Gov/Dept wants to produce is critical thinkers.

  2. LeftAtTheCross

    January 18, 2011 2:10 pm

    Excellent article. I’ve downloaded the Dept’s plan and will digest it over the next couple of days.

    On the Murder Machine, Hugh Green wrote a typically thought provoking blog piece on schools last year http://hughgreen.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/murder-machine-part-deux/

    As a parent, and spouse to a post-primary teacher, I see every day how narrowly the education system constraints those involved with it.

    There’s a very good animation about education which is worth spending 10 minutes to view http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

  3. Pope Epopt

    January 19, 2011 9:50 am

    children and young people (particular in primary and post-primary) are framed as workhorses and recipients of strategy implementation and tests, rather than thinkers, questioners, innovators and creators.

    Nail on head – it’s education by ticking the score-boxes. We can rely of FG/Lab to pick out the worst aspects of Blairite social engineering without resourcing and copy it here. The last thing the state wants is critical thinkers able to question statistics as propaganda.

    Including a broader range of issues, topics and subjects in school curricula inevitably has meant that the time available for the acquisition and consolidation of critical core skills has been eroded.

    As if it were a zero-sum game as far as developing literacy, numeracy and other activities was concerned. Amadáin!

  4. Pope Epopt

    January 19, 2011 9:52 am

    Repost with working markup:

    …children and young people (particular in primary and post-primary) are framed as workhorses and recipients of strategy implementation and tests, rather than thinkers, questioners, innovators and creators.

    Nail on head – it’s education by ticking the score-boxes. We can rely of FG/Lab to pick out the worst aspects of Blairite ‘social engineering without resources’ and copy it here. The last thing the state wants is critical thinkers able to question statistics as propaganda.

    Including a broader range of issues, topics and subjects in school curricula inevitably has meant that the time available for the acquisition and consolidation of critical core skills has been eroded.

    As if it were a zero-sum game as far as developing literacy, numeracy and other activities was concerned. Amadáin!

  5. vincent wood

    January 19, 2011 11:15 am

    We repeat the following so often that there is the danger it looses its kick, but…

    The incoming coalition could and should be confronted with health and education on day one. If Labour are going into government with FG (as alas they will), they need to be confronted as to whether they are prepared to take a 21st century progressive approach to Education (as articulated by Karl Kitching) or fall into the Blairite trap (as Pope Epopt aluded to in the previous comment).

    Its no use coming at FG, they neither understand or care, but deep down in Labour there is a progressive soul lurking and they can’t be allowed to duck out under some notion of working a coalition ‘in the national intetest’.

  6. William Wall

    January 19, 2011 11:39 am

    What exactly is meant by literacy and numeracy? the OECD (and neoliberalism in general) wants functional reading but doesn’t want books. They want functional numeracy but give calculators to eight year olds – the problem here is, of course, that the corporations need to sell their calculators and in the end of the day they don’t give a shit whether a worker can add or subtract as long as she/knows where the keys are. The whole strategy is headless. Nobody in power knows what he’s looking for anymore – except they want to please the corporations. It’s Ology without Idea.

  7. vincent wood

    January 19, 2011 1:42 pm

    @LeftAtTheCross.

    I know, I know.

    We raise these things to a) To try to get through to
    whoever in the labour party who ‘might’ rediscover a progressive motivation.
    b) To make sure there is a debate. I think that Labour would have to at least respond and be forced to justify. FG would just laugh.

    I don’t foster any illusions about what has happened to Labour and/or other Social democrats once in power. I do realise that some of them came into politics in the first place to do some good. I think that it’s worth a go trying to draw that out.

  8. LeftAtTheCross

    January 19, 2011 2:05 pm

    Vincent, agreed on the motivations of some if not many who enter politics. I’m not at it long enough myself to have any illusions of imparting wisdom, but so far in my experience I’d suggest that the groupthink in organisations tends to drown out that initial individual spark. Unless the political line of the party aligns broadly with those of the individual member it’s more likely that they’ll either depart the scene altogether with a bitter taste of cynicism in their mouth, or hold their tongues and keep their heads down and say nothing. But with Labour there will be interesting times ahead as they enter a right-of-centre coalition while fighting a Left flank defence in the Dail against the ULA and SF. That may be sufficient tension to shake loose some of the remaining Leftists within Labour to either fight the centrism from within, or leave and swell the ranks of further Left parties. But I do agree with your point that it’s up to the rest of us to assist in reminding Labour of its social democratic soul, lest they conveniently choose to forget.

  9. vincent wood

    January 19, 2011 5:51 pm

    @LeftAtTheCross

    Political parties are self serving, or rather they are ALSO self serving. I don’t like that bit and I spent a few years at middle level of one of them.

    I haven’t been an active member for about 3 years and it is indeed easier to publicly express my views. But that’s me. Others flourish in the collective voice of a party or enjoy the security of a shared belief.

    Members of all the progressive parties of the left should chance their arm and be vocal. If the things peole say are progressive than let a party justify putting down those progressive voices. Its not the end of the world being turfed out of a party.

    Maybe its my age, but I think that there is far too much to do to worry about keeping everybody happy.