The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 18th, 2009

Whatever age children start school, teaching will be dire

Education, education, education. Last week the chief executive of Tesco, the country’s largest private employer, said publicly that school standards were “woefully low”: teenagers leave school unfit for work and employers “are often left to pick up the pieces”. Sir Terry Leahy, the Tesco boss, is not alone in taking this bleak view: the head of the Confederation of British Industry said many of its members shared Leahy’s opinions. The chief executive of Asda commented that “no one can deny that Britain has spawned generations of young people who struggle to read, write or do simple maths”. We do not need these top employers to tell us this. We know. The evidence for it is so familiar. Occasionally I wonder what, after all his promises, Tony Blair feels about his government’s betrayal of schoolchildren. Last week he was spotted in Westminster Cathedral visiting the bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux. Perhaps he was hoping for divine intervention on this and other matters. Earthly intervention was on offer last week, however. Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University published his long-awaited independent review of primary education on Thursday and made some radical suggestions. His team’s view of what has happened in primary schools under Labour is exceptionally bleak: the report finds that successive ministers have imposed on teachers an unprecedented degree of control in a system with “Stalinist overtones”; it accuses the government of introducing an educational diet “even narrower than that of the Victorian elementary schools”. What the report recommends is delaying formal education until children are six, concentrating before that on play-based learning; abolishing Sats and league tables and replacing them with assessments by teachers; extending teacher training; and introducing more specialist teachers for subjects such as languages and music. One can only say, along with poor illiterate Vicky Pollard of Little Britain — an icon of failed education — “Yeah but no but yeah but no.” Yes, of course “formal education” isn’t necessary or desirable for five-year-olds, if “formal” means what it usually does. Yes, of course the best education for young children should be fun and playful and interesting to them, if that is what a “play-based curriculum” means. Of course many children can easily be put off learning for ever by excessively formal education. Of course it is true that better, more enjoyable teaching is the way to improve attention and discipline among little children, rather than stricter rules. Of course the current curriculum for five-year-olds is absolutely daft in its manic, stupid, unrealistic scope — try reading it. Of course Sats are worse than useless and should be dropped. Of course league tables have been counterproductive. And of course it is true that this government has tried to micromanage teachers’ every working minute, driving many of them out of the profession; the word “Stalinist” is right. Yes but no but: none of this is simple. I oppose any rigid, narrow education that blasts the joy of childhood and destroys children’s natural longing to learn — the teaching style of a Victorian elementary school. But I don’t believe that the teaching children get in year 1 these days is at all formal, in that sense — rather the reverse. I don’t imagine you see that kind of formal primary education anywhere now, except in private schools. What can the report be getting at? I suspect that at the root of its objection to “formal” education is a dislike of the government requirement — much ignored — to teach all children phonics from year 1; that is, from the age of five or so. Primaries have been too focused on the three Rs, the report says, to which one can only reply that if this is true, there is something horribly wrong with their focus — a clear case of aiming low and missing. One does not have to be Thomas Gradgrind to believe that a primary education that doesn’t teach all children to read, quickly and well, within a year is a failed education. A child who can’t decode words confidently at seven is a child handicapped for life. That doesn’t mean all children must start at four or five or six — many are not ready in any way, although others may already be fluent readers at three and four. But phonics itself — at the right age — can, with a well-trained, charismatic, fun-loving teacher, be good fun, as well as fast and efficient. It is forbiddingly formal only in the hands of poor teachers. Everything depends on the quality of the teacher. A bad teacher can put any child off anything. A bad teacher will be bad at play and play-based teaching, too, yet many have already retreated into it, imagining, wrongly, that it is easier. It is harder. Doing it badly — leaving deprived children who can hardly talk to grunt at each other in little groups — is worse than useless. Bad teaching is at the heart of all this. It’s true the Labour ministers have tried to micromanage teachers in every way, but there was a reason. They recognised, like their predecessors, that there were too many inadequate teachers getting poor results. But rather than sack them or revolutionise teacher training, they chose to try to make education teacher-proof by micromanagement. Daft, but understandable. Micromanagement is what you do when you don’t trust the employee. What’s wrong with the Alexander report, for all its right-minded ideals, is that its proposals depend on trusting teachers. And the truth is that teachers here and now cannot as a group be trusted. That’s why the curriculum and league tables and Sats were originally introduced, counterproductive though they proved. I apologise to the many good teachers out there. But the system has been brought low by poorly qualified, trained and motivated teachers, supported by their unions. Between them they managed to subvert the literacy hour, for example. Ask any turnaround head teacher what the most important change has to be and it is invariably to sack the bad teachers first, which is always extremely difficult. Poor teachers have been tolerated too long: the Alexander report says there is no evidence for Ofsted’s claim that schools now have the best cohort of new teachers in history. No single thing is more urgent, or more neglected, in education policy today than to put a bomb under teacher training and the outdated, lazy orthodoxy that has almost wrecked English teaching traditions. That’s what is most needed. Teacher training, teacher training, teacher training.