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Guaranteed chaos

On the bus, I overheard two young teachers talking. "Mr Johnson did a learning walk today and evaluated my working wall," said one. "But at least my targets were on track and my green zone mark-ups were done." After checking with a teacher friend, I discovered that a working wall is an interactive form of wall display and a learning walk is when the headteacher visits the classroom to do a bit of observation and monitoring.

The fads in primary education have never ceased to amaze me. Throughout my headship, I steered a careful course, accepting new ideas only if I thought they would truly benefit the children. Many schemes were dreamed up by academics and civil servants who hadn't a clue about classrooms; some were actually damaging. The initial teaching alphabet, for example, was a reading system in the 1960s that had more than 40 characters to represent sounds and vowel combinations. Children were expected to start on this before moving to conventional English. It wrecked the reading and spelling chances of hundreds of students.

In the 1970s, we had the integrated day and vertical grouping, where classes would often consist of children of mixed ages. The Plowden report of 1967 had encouraged individual learning arising from a child's interests, and the theory was that the skills of older children would be beneficial to younger ones. The teacher was expected to accommodate a host of different activities simultaneously - a recipe for classroom chaos.

In the 1980s there was a drive for learning to read using "real books", which at least grew from a genuinely clever idea. A young teacher had decided that reading schemes bored her students, so she spent her class budget on as many highly regarded children's books as she could afford. The children loved the stories so they quickly learned to read them, and the system was soon in use across the school and then the local education authority. Inspectors started demanding that schools countrywide binned their Janet and John clones because "real books" were the way forward. What they ignored was the originating teacher's hard work in carefully grading the books into ability sets, thus retaining a reading scheme. Simply thrusting "real books" in front of children achieved nothing, and the system became known as reading by osmosis and fell out of favour.

But for innovations of the bleedin' obvious, I would give first prize to the now defunct General Teaching Council for England, which showered schools with advisory pamphlets. One, The Learning Conversation, suggested that teachers should get together in the staffroom and listen to each other's ideas to improve their practice. Hard on the heels of this came The Red Hot Lesson, in which teachers were encouraged to take risks with the direction of their lessons. If you did that now, you would be slammed by inspectors for not setting out the risks in your lesson plans. No wonder teachers tear their hair out trying to keep up with conflicting advice.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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