The future is small

For schools the single most important priority in the next decade is a radical reduction in class sizes, says Ronnie Smith.

IN trying to look ahead, it is hard to go past consideration of the potential impact of the rapidly changing world of information and communications technology on teaching and learning. Schools have a long way to go to keep up with the pace, but the trend is clear. The combined efforts of government to migrate so many of its own services and activities to electronic means, together with the rapidly developing world of e-commerce, suggest there is no turning back.

The potential impact on teaching and learning is huge. Some will argue that it has the potential to render schools obsolete. If all learning can be packaged electronically, could we not dispense with schools altogether? That will appeal to many. After all, they are expensive to build and maintain, subject to vandalism, places where disorder and bullying can occur, and, in the eyes of some, places where their dear children are exposed to all kinds of undesirable people and influences. Pupil indiscipline and violence could be abolished at a stroke. Instead, young people could stay at home, plugged into their PC, or trot off to some nearby public access point like a library or community centre or cyber cafe - or even a learning factory into which some redundant school buildings could be converted.

Such a radical change is unlikely over the next decade. Schools have been a remarkably enduring feature of society over many hundreds of years and this will continue to be the case. On a very practical level, we should not forget the care function of schools. They make it possible for parents to go out to work, safe in the knowledge that their youngsters are being cared for and educated in their absence. Just as important, schools make possible social intercourse - in real, not virtual terms. The prospect of thousands of "home alone" children diligently working at their terminals is, frankly, fanciful.

Teaching and learning are about far more than just the delivery and receipt of packages. It has always seemed to me - both as a former teacher and looking back at those who taught me - that what sets a good teacher apart from their peers is the ability to engage and motivate and inspire. That is a very human quality, the "performing" element of the job that no amount of programming or systems can secure.

Real education will be diminished if we reduce it to bite-sized chunks of material accompanied by banks of items for instant self-assessment, delivered through education warehouses with serried ranks of students sitting at their terminal following their individual programme of study.

Real education requires pupil-teacher interaction. But that is not to say that current arrangements and practices do that particularly effectively. We do need change. There is, rightly, a growing emphasis on seeing pupils as individuals - on trying to identify and meet their particular needs. One of the strongest criticisms that many young people have of schools is that they are too often treated not as individuals but as part of a group. And parents are understandably interested primarily in the progress and well-being of their own child.

Schools are moving much further in this direction than is sometimes appreciated. We have seen the introduction of individual educational programmes in the context of special educational needs. The next big push is towards the introduction of personal learning plans.

The emerging technologies could greatly facilitate more frequent and meaningful information exchanges between parents and teachers, instead of the rigidities inherent in the sometimes frustrating traditional parent evenings. No doubt pupils could submit work by e-mail and get responses and feedback from their teachers.

ut the mere availability of these new and easy means of communicating does nothing to help those who must handle the increased volume of information transmitted. Because e-mail and the net are available on a so-called "247" basis, expectations are hugely increased. If we are not to widen the gap between the expectations of parents and pupils and the capacity of schools and teachers to respond, the single most important priority in the coming decade is a radical reduction in the numbers of pupils each teacher is expected to have responsibility for.

It is nonsense to expect a primary class teacher truly to know the needs - social, emotional and educational, across the full spectrum of the curriculum - of 33 pupils, and to be able to provide continuous feedback to them and their parents. In some secondary schools we see the sorry spectacle of the clock being turned back 20 years or more with the reintroduction of streaming and setting.

This reflects an attempt to square the circle of how to be more sensitive to individual needs while, at the same time, being compelled for economic reasons to organise classes of up to 33. Of course, it doesn't answer the problem but serves as a proxy by grouping supposedly "like" pupils for teaching purposes.

A modest start has been made to cutting class sizes in the early years of primary school. But it is just a start. We should be more radical. We need far deeper cuts - and across all stages to make a real difference. Only when that happens can teachers change their current teaching strategies to take full advantage of the opportunity the new technologies will bring to tailor the curriculum and the teaching and learning process to the individual needs and circumstances of all pupils. It will take time and money, but the sooner we embark on that journey the better.

Ronnie Smith is general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland. This is an extract from his speech to the union's education conference last week.

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