The observation that continental teaching styles are different from those prevailing in Britain is hardly a new one. Back in 1886 Matthew Arnold noted, with approval, that the Swiss and German methods are "more gradual, more natural, more rational than in ours. In the teaching of arithmetic, geometry and natural science I was particularly struck with the patience, the clinging to oral question and answer, the avoidance of over-hurry, the being content to advance slowly, the securing of the ground."
Arnold goes on to say that, had he been taught in a continental way, he too might have developed some ability in the technical subjects. But he wasn't. Nor, according to an increasingly popular strain of educational thinking, have British children in general had access to a systematic, methodical approach.
Arnold's views are quoted in a new pamphlet from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Under-achievement and Pedagogy describes the thinking behind an initiative in one of the poorest areas in Britain. One hundred years after Arnold was writing, Barking and Dagenham has decided that he might have had a point. The east London borough has been importing classroom expertise from Switzerland to help with the teaching of mathematics; a scheme sponsored by the National Institute, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Government and the borough itself.
This paper, written by two of Barking's senior inspectors, Graham Last and Roger Luxton, starts from the basis that primary school mathematics is a particular problem. A 1994 OFSTED paper concluded that: "Key stage 2 mathematics is judged to be the weakest subject of the curriculum... Pupils' understanding of mathematics is judged to be particularly weak in half of all schools."
Continental teaching, say Luxton and Last, is more systematic, more interested in consolidation of learning, and provides a better foundation for later learning.
British teachers, by contrast, are all too often thrown back on their own resources. The blame for this sorry situation is pinned firmly on the romantic, individually centred notions of pupil development that the authors - and the National Institute - believe are epitomised in the Plowden report.
"The weaknesses in the advice and guidance offered to teachers stems largely from the lack of an established science of pedagogy in England. This, in turn, originates in the emphasis placed upon the individual teacher and the individual pupil, rather than the class as a whole."
After surveying the current practice in Switzerland, the east London team came to the following conclusions: * the aim of the Swiss teacher is to ensure that virtually all pupils reach a basic standard as set out in the curriculum for each year group.
* the curriculum allows a good deal of consolidation.
* arithmetic accounts for 80 per cent of mathematics teaching in primary schools (only 50 per cent in England).
* teachers' manuals are central to their approach.
* whole-class teaching dominates, along with high-quality talk and discussion.
* There is less embarrassment at speaking aloud and no inclination to laugh at mistakes. The optimal layout is a horseshoe.
The borough is now in the middle of a long-term programme to introduce these features.
Nine years ago the director of the NIESR, Professor Sig Prais, resigned from the national curriculum working party on maths because he believed that his views were making no impact.
Today he seems to have made his point: ideas of whole-class teaching and "zero tolerance" of failure have been adopted across the political spectrum.
In a second paper looking at Swiss practice, Prais argues that holding back a handful of summer-born children, or asking them to repeat a year, can make a dramatic difference to the class.
Of summer-born children, he writes that: "initial disadvantage may be overcome in later years by some children; but for others the disadvantage grows cumulatively as their failure to master fundamentals leads to subsequent greater learning difficulties.
"Given more time to develop in a supportive pre-school environment, a greater proportion might have less trouble keeping pace with their class on entering formal school and in due course would complete their schooling not less well equipped than others in undertaking further education or training."
The British commitment to age-grouping, he argues, leads to twice the variability of pupil performance in Swiss schools.
"It may at first sight seem surprising that changing only three children in a class would be sufficient to account for such a large change in variability; but it corresponds with the kind of comment frequently made to us by teachers that the weakest two or three children in a class could properly absorb half the teachers' time.
"There is a need in England for careful consideration of a socio-moral issue that has so far received little attention: whether the stigma attached to being put, for example, into a low-attaining set for mathematics is really smaller than entering school a year later, as on continental practice."
Under-achievement and Pedagogy by R G Luxton and Graham Last. Discussion paper no 112. School Readiness, Whole Class Teaching and Pupils' Mathematical Attainments by S J Prais. Discussion paper no 111. Both papers available from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.