Divide the day - and rule the world

Peter Wilby

Is it time for one of those mock apologies that Private Eye does so well? "In recent years, we may have inadvertently given the impression that English schools wallow in low standards and expectations, that their pupils are uniformly slothful and subnormal and that the teachers are a bunch of lazy, good-for-nothing, half-witted trendies.

"We now realise that there was not a scintilla of truth in these allegations and we unreservedly apologise to anyone who may have formed this mistaken impression of the situation.

"We now understand, in the light of the latest reports, that our schools lead the world, that our teachers are touched with genius and that the pupils, who are flexible and risk-taking, are uniquely equipped to tackle tomorrow's world and to trounce all foreigners in the global market."

Well, it hasn't quite come to that yet. But there's an awful lot of good news around and perhaps the tide is on the turn.

First, we have the results of the latest national curriculum tests, showing a sharp rise in the proportion of 11-year-olds achieving level 4 and above.

Second, a team from Bristol University has found that, while French children outstrip the English in basic arithmetical skills such as adding and subtracting, "English pupils are much more willing to take risks, try things out and think for themselves" (I quote from Judith Judd's report in The Independent).

Finally, we get last week's lead story in The TES, announcing that on practical maths and science tests, English 13-year-olds are ranked second only to their peers in Singapore.

To borrow from Private Eye again, shurely shome mishtake? We English are so accustomed to losing at football, cricket, education, economic growth, the Eurovision Song Contest and so on, that we are instinctively suspicious of anything that casts us in the role of winners. We're only good at royalty and arms manufacturing, aren't we? So, with the assistance of the World Wide Web, I had a close look at the international test results.

They come from the Third International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) which, you may recall, showed that English nine- and 13-year-olds were seriously below-average in written maths tests.

These latest results concern tests that required children to apply their skills to real life. The 19 countries that took part didn't include Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Germany, Hungary and other stars of the educational firmament. They did include Colombia, Portugal, Cyprus, Iran, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, all of which we might expect to beat (or at least match), either because they are poor or because they are Anglo-Saxon and trendy like us.

I also discovered that we and the Romanians had managed to exclude more than 25 per cent of the recommended national sample, which sounds a bit of a cheat. On the other hand, the English children were, on average, younger when they were tested than their peers in 14 of the other 18 countries, and a full five months younger than those in Singapore.

Our boys and girls did jolly well with rubber bands, pulses (the sort you find in your wrist, not in the kitchen cupboard), magnets, calculators (better than anybody else except, mysteriously, Romania), shadows, solutions (the liquid sort), and dice.

They let us down badly on folding and cutting (another Romanian triumph there) and Plasticine. I think I know why. Plasticine has become so strongly associated with the 1960s and Lady Plowden that you rarely see it in schools nowadays. Our children probably wondered what it was. Much the same applies, I would guess, to folding and cutting. Something that just requires scissors and paper would be regarded as too low-level and undemanding a task by our ambitious pedagogues.

And that really is the nub of it. Children learn what they are taught; they do well in familiar situations performing familiar tasks. If you spend all day drilling children in complex calculations involving rods and perches, as our Victorian ancestors did, they will be wizards at mental arithmetic. If you give them frequent pencil-and-paper tests, as many overseas schools do, they will do well at such tests. If you encourage children to experiment and speculate, as many teachers in England pride themselves on doing, they will shine in studies like those reported last month by TIMSS and Bristol University.

The dramatic rise in national curriculum assessment results for 11-year-olds isn't, when you think about it, all that surprising.

We are bringing up a generation of children whose schooling is geared to tests at 11. Teachers and schools are becoming more adept at preparing for them. Improvement is almost inevitable.

My point is that test results resolve nothing. They don't prove or disprove the arguments between different styles of teaching and different curricula, because these are rooted in different ideas about what education should achieve. Smart work with rubber bands isn't going to convince somebody who thinks children should be able to divide 2.37 by 0.14. Equally, brilliant written test results won't convince those who believe (with some justice) that we can leave that kind of thing to calculators and computers.

According to the Bristol researchers (to quote The Independent again), "the challenge facing France and England I is how to get the best of both worlds".

I have the answer. Start the school day with a literacy hour and follow it with a numeracy hour. Then add half-an-hour of old-fashioned general knowledge - dates of battles, main European rivers, annual Manchester rainfall, that sort of thing. This would give great pleasure to people such as chief inspector Chris Woodhead and columnist Melanie Phillips and stop them banging on about how it all went wrong around the time of the Enlightenment. We could call this period of the school day "the Woodhead", rather as we refer to a " Baker day".

Teachers would then spend the rest of the day on risk-taking, experiment, inquiry, speculation, exploration, and use rubber bands, dice, Plasticine or anything else that takes their fancy. I would prohibit any teaching of facts or drills after 11.30am; indeed, I would split the teaching profession in two, so that traditional teachers took classes in the morning, and the trendies in the afternoon. This would resolve the interminable formalinformal arguments in the only way they will ever be resolved.

We would then come top in all the international tests, as well as comfortably achieving Labour's 2002 targets, and we'd live happily ever after. Wouldn't we?

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