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Literacy skills would enhance knowledge of numeracy skills

by on 2014/05/06

Guest Post by Neil McLennan.

This week the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy published its 2013 research findings relating to numeracy development in learners. This provoked the print media to produce anticipated and predicable headlines such as “Numeracy Skills Falling in Scottish Schools” and “Dramatic Decline in Numeracy”. Do the headlines tell the story well enough, and does the research help us?

The newspaper reports above tell us that for both Primary 4 and Primary 7 (P4 and P7 below), there were “lower levels of attainment in 2013 compared to 2011”. A key question is whether the media coverage accurately reflects the issue, and furthermore, are the trends statistically significant? While the report perhaps does not have a long enough longitudinal element to fully address longer-term trends, there is, however, certainly a drop in standards: “At both P4 and P7, there were statistically significantly lower levels of attainment in 2013 compared to 2011. At P4, 69 per cent of pupils performed well or very well in 2013, compared to 76 per cent in 2011. Similarly, at P7, 66 per cent of pupils performed well or very well in 2013 compared to 72 per cent in 2011. The difference in S2 performance between 2011 and 2013 was negligible.”

The report makes the following assumptions and assessed students at the following levels depending on what stage they were at in the chronological passage through school years:

• P4 students should be at First Level
• P7 students should be at Second Level
• S2 students should be at Third Level

The report goes on to explain that the figure for pupils working well or very well in numeracy at the relevant curriculum level was lower than P4 or P7 figures for S2 pupils, with about 42 per cent of pupils working well or very well at Third Level.

Fifty per cent or more would constitute performing well at any given level, and 75 per cent would equate to performing very well for the purposes of the report. However, is this sort of measurement by perceived aspirational attainment level at a particular stage helpful or indeed relevant in the modern curriculum? And does it help to fuel the headlines which we saw on the publication of the report?

The new curriculum in Scotland, Curriculum for Excellence, operates on seven principles of Curriculum design:

• Challenge and enjoyment
• Breadth
• Progression
• Depth
• Personalisation and choice
• Coherence
• Relevance.

These are broad principles which underpin curriculum planning in a curriculum that at a micro-level is made up of a multitude of ‘experiences and outcomes’ under eight Curriculum areas (numeracy being one of them). The experiences and outcomes are split into levels (Early Years, First level, Second Level, Third Level, Fourth Level) and students are assessed according to them and the levels. In setting up assessments, students should be able to apply experiences and outcomes, show a breadth of experience and be challenged. At one point educators and policy makers split the levels and experiences and outcomes up into further divisions of each unit of learning, setting up Developing, Consolidating and Secure assessment levels. Recently there has been a move away from this further fragmentation of the curriculum. Confused? You will be. However, if you want to read further on this you will perhaps have achieved some success in meeting the Literacy Experience and Outcome 3-14a, “Using what I know about the features of different types of texts, I can find, select, sort, summarise, link and use information from different sources.”

In all of this a key point is vital: the new curriculum was supposed to deliver learning at the right level, at the right time, and in a way which got it right for every child. The Curriculum for Excellence was supposed to move away from the “you are in second year so you should be at x level” mentality that held many students back in the past whilst confining many more to automatic failure. One does not become a manager because of time served (although some organisations do still operate in this fashion); you do not become a mother at a certain age. The world we live in is far more embolic in its development, sporadic in its passage and moves in ebbs and flows, with frequent, buffeting and crashing waves. Learning works in the same way – in fits and starts and moving in many different directions according to many different influences.

So, to conclude, are reports like these useful in the modern education landscape? Well, as public service educators are accountable (and so they should be) and as a vital service, there needs to be ongoing efforts to improve life chances and outcomes for service users. Perhaps raw scores for levels achieved is not the best way to measure these successes in delivery. In the modern education landscape the best tool is that of value added. Learners and educators would be better measured in distance travelled rather than level achieved. For it is distance travelled that shows progress and shows the impact of inputs in moving learners in the right direction – in essence measuring learning.

And on that journey I return to the aim of it all. If we are aiming to enhance students skills in learning, life and work (be it literacy, numeracy or whatever other curriculum area) then we need to clearly articulate what these skills are and why there are relevant in lifelong learning, work and life in general. To that end the Young Academy of Scotland has produced a resource which aims to support this area of learning.

Feedback on this resource would be much appreciated as we hope this learning tool helps students and educators on their learning journey whilst challenging them to think about where numeracy skills are and can be applied to real life contexts. Now that sort of learning and research into the impact of it should, and could be, in the headlines.

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