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Forget the `what', it's the 'how' that counts

Primary specialist Maurice Galton is back in the fray. Maureen O'Connor reports. Maurice Galton, professor of education at Leicester University for a decade, has undoubtedly irritated some of his more high-profile colleagues by keeping his head down during the past six years of political sound and fury. He will probably irritate them even more by admitting at this stage that he was wrong to hold his peace.

Professor Galton is best known as an early pioneer of classroom-based observational research. The Leicester study known as ORACLE, on which he collaborated in the 1970s and which focused on learning in primary schools, is probably still better known than his more recent work on small primary schools and on an international comparison of schools.

As he explains in the preface to the new book, Crisis in the Primary Classroom, in which he has chosen to break his self-imposed silence, Professor Galton declined invitations from other educationists to join in the political rough and tumble of opposition to the Education Reform Act in 1988. He took up a place on the primary advisory committee of the National Curriculum Council at York and did not resign - even when he realised that its advice was being rewritten by the politicians and their nominees. His term ended when the committee was wound up.

"There is always a problem about resigning," he says in retrospect. "I suppose it is arrogance but you always feel that you can make a difference." That arrogance - or optimism - has been dissipated now it is clear that all pretence of using existing research evidence to justify policy has been abandoned in favour of "unsubstantiated prejudice and hearsay".

Even as the sound and fury grew in the early 1990s, he remained hopeful that the debate over primary education would move away from the stereotypical "traditional v progressive" battlefield and tackle the more fundamental changes he believes are necessary if standards are to be raised.

Events, he says now with hindsight, proved him wrong. Like other colleagues before and since, his views were distorted, he says, by the tabloid press and used to support the traditionalist cause.

And as time has gone on he has become more and more convinced that despite the Dearing review and other "concessions" to teachers, the current establishment either cannot or will not take on board the issues he has been quietly promoting for so long. He feels profoundly that important issues have been drowned by the megaphone politics of the past few years.

Put briefly, his own view is that while primary education may be improved by planning, monitoring and assessment, these three prongs of present policy are not in themselves enough to make much difference. The content of the curriculum, on which so much time and energy has been spent, is almost a side issue at primary level, in his view.

The crux is the quality of the teaching children receive. And that can only be improved if what is now known about the efficacy of different teaching strategies reaches teachers in training and already in service. The professional development of teachers, he says, is the key.

Professor Galton does not much trust politicians of any party, although he was a candidate for the old Liberal party in Leicestershire in 1974. It is understandable, perhaps, that the Right should pursue a model of teaching and learning which is concerned mainly with the acquisition of basic skills and factual information, he thinks. It is much more worrying when the opposition parties show little or no understanding that in the late 20th century this is a totally inadequate educational model to be promoting.

Labour supporters cheering the notion of sacking "bad teachers" is alarming when the study of "the science of the art of teaching" continues to be neglected, he says.

"What is so galling is that when I am asked to the Far East to advise on education systems which outstrip us in tests of basic competence, it is precisely because they have realised that what they are doing is no longer adequate." The Pacific Rim countries have cracked the problem of teaching simple procedures, which can be taught directly, but they are now anxious to learn how to tackle more abstract learning, which cannot.

If anything makes him angry it is the fact that researchers have known for 20 years that primary children waste a lot of time in class because they rely too heavily on their teachers. Children either coast along or wait for help because they do not have the skills or confidence to attempt solutions to problems for themselves. There is little encouragement of real collaborative work which is known to be effective and through which children learn valuable skills which cannot be gained individually.

"I hoped when I went on to the NCC advisory committee that pedagogy, the 'how' of teaching, would be a central issue in the report. I have waited for HMI and OFSTED and SEAC to make it an issue. But all the professional emphasis has been on managerial issues, while the politicians have seen the whole enterprise as the imposition of a strait-jacket which would force teachers back to 'traditional' methods."

The irony is, he says, that "top down" reform is unlikely to work. Since the introduction of the national curriculum, there has been little change in teaching methods. Primary schools have simply "bolted on" what has been imposed to their own preferred approaches which, as research showed, are only marginally "progressive" anyway. Stress has increased and morale has suffered and will continue to suffer until teaching ceases to be regarded as a mere technical skill and has its professionalism restored.

But if Professor Galton and other classroom researchers had the answers to high primary standards 20 years ago, why have their ideas not been taken up? Surely this is a failure by university departments to disseminate crucial knowledge in a way which could do some good?

There has been a failure to get the message across, he admits. He blames this partly on politicised and negative press reporting; partly on an educational culture which has been reluctant to criticise for fear of lowering morale; and partly a reliance on big projects to improve teaching quality when, he believes, what is required is a much more individualised approach to teachers' development as experts.

Everyone knows, he says, that there is good and bad teaching. Research indicates that the biggest differences are not between local authorities or schools but between classes within schools. Every parent is aware when a child in primary school "moves up" to the class of a teacher who is less than adequate.

What leads Professor Galton to break his silence now is what he sees as the threat of "no change for five years" following the Dearing revision of the national curriculum, and the threatened changes to teacher education. In the area of pedagogy, he says, change is still needed and the teacher training "reforms" are unlikely to bring it about. He has no difficulty with a system which allows student teachers plenty of time in schools. Leicester has been a pioneer in this area. But he is alarmed both that their time for reflection and discussion could be severely reduced and that they might be confined to a school which is less than satisfactory.

His immediate aims are in this area. He would like more than anything, he says, to have a school attached to the university. Failing that, he sees the value of establishing a small number of teaching schools which are real centres of excellence. He is also discussing with his colleague Professor Neville Bennett at Exeter University, another classroom researcher, the possibility of setting up a joint Centre for Pedagogy.

The aim, quite simply, is to find out what works and pass that information on to the classroom teachers who need it. "I know it is difficult. My own teaching experience was at secondary level and when I went into a primary classroom, I discovered I was doing the same as everyone else, making the same mistakes. I also learned how primary schools lack resources and how intellectually challenging it is to teach young children. Secondary teaching is a doddle in comparison."

"It really is time for a national and an international debate," Professor Galton says. The British, he thinks, are often too insular and do not want to know what is going on in the rest of the world. "Of course there are cultural differences. In the United States you see teachers genuinely negotiating with pupils. In Asian schools, order is restored by the teacher simply asking whether the students want her to put her finger to her lips for silence and that is enough. In this country, children are coming into school far more difficult to teach. Changes in society impinge on the classroom."

But everywhere he goes, he says, the main issue for the future is the same: how to give children the confidence and self-esteem to become self-motivated learners, because that is what the next century is going to require. As he prepares for another trip to the Far East he is afraid that his hosts have realised this, and Britain has not.

Crisis in the Primary Classroom by Maurice Galton is published this week by David Fulton Publishers, Pounds 12.99.

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