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This might help

The OFSTED-commissioned research report to which last month's Panorama programme lauding the virtues of whole-class teaching was ostensibly pegged has finally broken cover (page 3). Publication of this review of England's showing in international comparisons of educational achievement carried out by Professor David Reynolds and Shaun Farrell managed to miss the end of term for both schools and Parliament.

This does not seem to have stopped its supposed conclusions from being glibly taken up in advance by some for a bit of axe-grinding (see Diary opposite, for instance). True, there is little of comfort to be found in it. But for anyone prepared to let the facts get in the way of a good prejudice, the report is long on caveat and conjecture and short on firm findings.

So far, so predictable. It has proved extremely difficult to devise a common currency to compare pupil achievements in different countries, even for mathematics where the cultural and language differences are said to be least marked. Then there is the difficulty of ensuring each country produces a truly representative sample of its pupils so that like is compared with like. In the last major international survey covering 20 countries, so few of the pupils selected to make up the English sample actually took the tests that only limited confidence could be placed in the findings. Then there is the question of how far any observed differences between countries are attributable to what goes on in their schools rather than the result of different economic, social and cultural expectations. All of which the report Worlds Apart? carefully considers before coming to the important conclusion that schools and educational systems do make a difference.

In the case of England, it suggests: that our performance in maths is relatively poor overall but especially in arithmetic; that this performance has deteriorated in relation to other countries since the mid-1960s; that the range of achievement is much wider in England with many more low achievers; and that this is all the more surprising because English pupils have more years of compulsory schooling than other countries.

Curriculum innovation might mean what is measured in these surveys is no longer what is taught, Reynolds and Farrell allow, but the low response rate is more likely to mean our performance has been overestimated than under. The fact that all the studies they consider point in the same direction convinces them at least that English performance cannot be described as anything other than "poor". The Third International Maths and Science Study involving the testing of 500,000 Year 8 and 9 pupils in 45 countries may throw further light on this when the first results are published in November.

But Reynolds and Farrell's difficulty in pinning down the size and shape of the differences is as nothing compared with the problem they faced in substantiating their causes. Here they rely on a series of small-scale comparisons to provide a number of "hypotheses" and "speculations" as to why England does so badly compared with the rest of Europe and the rapidly developing countries of the Pacific Rim. These include cultural factors such as the higher status and achievement of teachers; the value placed on learning; national priorities; the aspirations of parents and commitment of pupils.

Children on the Pacific Rim spend more hours at school on more days. Homework is set from the age of six and there is a fundamental belief that all children can learn certain core skills in contrast with the Western belief in a "normal" distribution of ability with its tail of inevitable failure.

Frequent testing of pupils and direct monitoring by principals of the work of teachers, the reliance on a single textbook enabling teachers to channel energies into classroom instruction rather than production of worksheets and various ways of ensuring that the range of achievement is not too wide may be among the important school factors.

The much stronger emphasis on mixed-ability, whole-class interactive instruction in both Asian and European classrooms is also one of the differences that needs to be examined further, Reynolds and Farrell say. As first The TES and then Panorama have shown, this is being looked into in Barking and Dagenham under the auspices of Professor Sig Prais (page 3). His thesis is that the dearth of whole-class teaching and the emphasis on "differentiation" condoned by the Cockcroft report encourages the "fanning out" of pupils' achievement as they move up the school. The object of his reforms is to keep the whole class more closely together in attainment. This is to be achieved by devoting the greater part of each lesson to teacher-led question and answer sessions, alternating with the use of improved teaching materials, which consolidate pupil learning as well as guiding primary teachers in the subject they often find most difficult.

But anyone who imagines this offers a quick (or cheap) fix that can simply be put right by exhorting teachers to spend 60 per cent of their time on whole-class teaching should listen to Professor Prais. Despite his obvious enthusiasm for the project, which began 18 months ago, he warns that at least a further two years will be needed before any quantitative assessment is possible. And should it prove to be relevant to our problems in this country, he emphasises that the teaching style and the new materials are interdependent and that both will require careful preparation and heavy investment.

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