A recent report by Policy Exchange, David Cameron’s favoured think tank, claims in short, that the majority of the progress towards the Government’s Literacy and Numeracy targets happened before the National Literacy and the National Numeracy Strategies were introduced by this government.

 Moreover, this progress they say, was largely artificial, partly due to teachers acclimatising to the tests and party due to a reduction in testing standards that was first picked up in 2001 by researchers at Durham University.

 Moreover science, which  is not part of the Strategies, has seen similar progress since 1997 to both  Literacy and Numeracy.  PE claims are overstated, without nuance and dogmatic but nonetheless need a response from defenders of the Strategies.  In 1996 the then government created two pilot programmes, the Literacy and Numeracy projects. 

A year later the new Labour government came to power committed to introducing National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies (NLNS), essentially a roll out of the pilot projects begun by the previous Tory administration. 

 So, the Primary Literacy Strategy was introduced in 1998 and the Primary Numeracy Strategy in 1999 as a way to boost attainment in English and maths ,through prescribing certain content that all schools should teach (though the Strategies were never statutory). In 2003, these two separate initiatives were replaced by a single Primary National Strategy. Over £2 billion has been spent on these strategies to date. Most of this has been spent on local authority advisors who aim to help schools deliver the strategy and on a central contract to a main provider, Capita. 

Capita manages the projects on behalf of the Department (DCSF), although as CFBT Education Trust, the initial contractor, quickly found out, civil servants made it clear very early on that the initiative was too important they thought for them to cede management control to the contractor. In short, they were in control both conceptually and operationally.

 Policy Exchange claims that the effect of the strategies on pupil achievement has been minimal. The results of Key Stage 2 SATs, taken at the end of primary school, were going up sharply before the strategies were introduced as teachers learnt how to prepare students for the recently introduced national tests at the same time as pass marks were falling.

After the strategies were introduced, progress was far slower and has ground to a halt in recent years, despite further reductions in pass marks. Policy Exchange argue that this is because centralised programmes will always stifle innovation in schools and crowd out new ideas in the marketplace.

 For example, regardless of the overwhelming evidence, it took ten years of pressure before synthetic phonics was recognised by the National Literacy Strategy as the best way to teach reading. Nick Gibb, the shadow schools spokesman, has been hammering home this point since back when. (Gibb also has strong reservations over some of the published materials used by the National Strategies).  Given that civil servants hold the whip hand over the contractor, in terms of managing the project the scope for harnessing the full range of skills normally associated with  private sector inputs including innovation, cost  controls etc have somewhat  limited.

 PE argues that there are numerous holistic literacy programmes on the market (and some numeracy ones) that cover all levels of ability. As these alternative programmes can be more effective it believes in raising achievement than the National Strategies, fewer children need extra support when they are implemented, making them cheaper overall. By forcing schools through the current system, the Government have created an unnecessarily complex and costly process for delivering basic skills that is still they believe, simply not working. 

The co-author of this report, Sam Freedman, is now working on conservative education policy in what is effectively the Shadow No 10 Policy unit. He and others there are clearly not card carrying members of the Strategies fan club, feeling the scarce resources could be better used. Tories are in any case predisposed to being suspicious of large, centrally conceived and delivered education initiatives (though Tories don’t always practise in government, what they preach in opposition)

 The Strategies are continuing for another year, at least, but their supporters will need now to convince Tory policy makers of their worth and to justify the cost effectiveness of the Strategies, if they are to have a longer term future at least in their current form.

On a positive note the Tories share a concern in ensuring that the basics in literacy and numeracy are well taught in schools, and indeed provided much of the original thinking on the need to target literacy and numeracy in the lead up to the 1997 election, so some form of centrally driven support, with a strong local delivery focus might be possible.

We also know about the Tories attachment to the use of synthetic phonics. 

 Those running the Strategies, on behalf of the Government, have had to cope with civil servants seeking to project manage (civil servants project management skills are not always apparent) while also responding quickly to shifting political priorities.

They have their own frustrations too because not all they learn on the ground, in delivering the Strategies at the sharp end, is taken into account by their political masters, leading inevitably to some frustration. 

Nonetheless, those currently involved remain confident that recent reforms will begin to show fruit soon, but the Tories will need some convincing about the way forward should they win the election (which, notwithstanding the current expenses imbroglio which is damaging to all the main parties, now seems more likely than not)  And time is short.