Azara Blog: Government spending on the National Literacy Strategy allegedly a waste of money

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Date published: 2007/11/02

The BBC says:

Costly literacy schemes in England have not paid off, with children's reading skills barely improved since the 1950s, an independent inquiry suggests.

The £500m spent has had a "relatively small impact", according to the Cambridge-based Primary Review.

Interim reports for the two-year inquiry also criticise national tests, saying teachers' views should be used.

Schools Minister Andrew Adonis rejected the claims, saying primary standards had never been higher.

These latest Primary Review reports were made by assessing existing research on England's primary schools.

Authors Peter Tymms and Christine Merrell said: "Five hundred million pounds was spent on the National Literacy Strategy with almost no impact on reading levels.

"Standards of reading have remained more or less the same over a very long time - since the 1950s.

"There was a rise following the immediate post-war period and there was a slight drop followed by a recovery after the introduction of the National Curriculum, but in essence standards have remained constant."

Maths had shown moderately rising standards, compared to a very slight improvement in reading.

However, the report goes on: "Massive efforts to bring about change have had a relatively small impact.

"These policies have cost many hundreds of millions of pounds but they have generally not had a sound research base and have not been systematically evaluated."

It is intellectually dishonest to compare reading skills from the 1950s with reading skills today and claim that any difference between the two has anything to do with any recent programme being implemented (or not). Of course the National Literacy Strategy should be "systematically evaluated", and not by people with a vested interest in claiming it is a success (or not). But when doing that evaluation the real question is how reading skills would be today if the programme had run versus if the programme had not run, and whether any (hoped for) improvement when it was run was value for money. The only way to do this properly is to take two random samples of students, and have some be served by the programme and some not (with equally skilled and motivated teachers), and see what the difference in outcome is. Comparing results with the 1950s is irrelevant. Of course the authors of the report could well be correct. This could well have been largely a waste of money. It would not be the first time that happened with a government programme. Hopefully someone independent will be able to do a sensible analysis.

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