Sunday, 23 December 2018

Education doublethink.

When I trained as a teacher in the later 1950s it was implied that we should  be proud that each individual school decided on its own curriculum  and taught whatever the professional teachers, in discussion with the school governors,  representing  the community, thought was most suitable for the young people in that community.  There were only two compulsory subjects: religious eduction (RE) and physical eduction ( PE.)  For  RE each local authority had an "Agreed Syllabus," presumably thrashed out between the local religious leaders.  I've no idea how the PE syllabus was determined.  At college, for primary schools we used a book called "Moving and Growing,"  universally referred to as "Moaning and Groaning."  I suspect that for secondary schools each PE teacher was free to be sadistic in his (or her?) own way.

This trust of the professionals was contrasted favourably with the French system , where we were told that  all schools taught to a rigidly imposed national curriculum, such that the minister of education could look at his watch at, say 10h50 on a Tuesday morning and know  that all collegians  in the 3rd grade would be  studying page 53 of the algebra book. We presumed this was something of an exaggeration, but took the point.

This English  system (Scotland was different and presumed to be better - I'm not sure about Wales), trusting professionals and local knowledge, was firs disturbed by the Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, who in speech in 1976, called for a great debate on eduction.  From this eventually flowed  a National Curriculum, micro-managed to something like we assumed happened in France, and ferociously policed by the grimly entitle OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education.)  the current system even specifies how children should be taught to read - by something called synthetic phonics* whatever they are.

Now comes the double-think.

The government has a policy of allowing, even forcing, schools to opt our of  "Local Authority Control" and become Academies or Free Schools.  These a freed from the constraints of the National Curriculum and can, presumably, do as they like. In other words, or so it seems, back to the status quo ante.

According to a recent statement by the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb:

Headteachers are using the freedoms afforded by academy and free school status to make [rising standards in primary schools] a reality, as illustrated by the progress disadvantage pupils in multi-academy trusts are making in writing and maths.

Well, maybe so, and maybe not.

Gibb's assertion is based on a statistic which shows that whereas 70% of comfortably-off pupils reach the government's expected standards in English and maths at the age of eleven, only 51% of those on free school meals do so, but that the gap between the two is narrowing.

A great deal depends on whether you think that such statistics are worth the paper they're printed on - not to mention the hours of boredom suffered by both teachers and pupils in practising for the tests.

But if you do think credence should be given to such findings,which Mr Gibb clearly does  here comes the double-double think.

The narrowing of the gap between comfortable off and those "on free school meals" applies to all schools, not just those experiencing, if not enjoying, "freedom." Only 61% of al children in free schools reached the government's expected standards, compared with 66%  of those in schools still maintained by local authorities.

According to the report on the Callaghan initiative cited above, educational experts were “deeply shocked” at the prime minister’s impertinence. [Callaghan's policy advisor] was asked to relay to Downing Street that education was not the business of the prime minister.
They were right.  Let's get the experts and communities  back in charge, and the fun back in education.

"  I had never heard of "synthetic phonics" until I read this article, but am very proud of having  actually taught a handful of non-readers, one of whom was about 11, to read.  Any parent of more than one child will tell you that all children develop and different speeds in different areas, and any infant and primary teacher (of which I was one for a very demanding three years of my career) that different children respond to different methods.  In my day most responded to what was called "look and say" - so that after page 5 of the Janet and John book every long word was "aeroplane." Some didn't and had to be encouraged to slog though every word phonetically.  The trick was to find ways of making that fun.

I might also add that until about two years ago I had never heard of a "frontal adverb": something which the current National Curriculum demands  that primary school kids  recognise and use in these unenlightened time.

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