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The old days were good

At the recent TES-backed London Festival of Education, I sat in a packed auditorium to hear Sir Michael Wilshaw talk about the revised Ofsted inspection agenda. He seemed a fair-minded and committed person who felt his views were often misinterpreted by the tabloid press. Nevertheless, some of the things he said worried me.

He talked about education in London, because that is where he has spent most of his career. He said that his audience was probably too young to remember the 1970s and early 1980s, but education in London was dire in those days before the national curriculum and Ofsted. Well, I was one of the few in the audience who was very familiar with those days, as I was a deputy in the 1970s and a headteacher from the start of the 1980s. Was education really that bad, and has it really improved that much?

Virtually all the teachers I have worked with during my career in inner London have been committed professionals, who gave up huge amounts of their time to do their best for the children in their care, many of whom came from difficult backgrounds and were challenging, though rewarding, to teach. If you were a primary teacher in the 1960s you were given a classroom and a set of children but no curriculum to follow. You could teach whatever you liked, usually in the form of projects, whereby individual children chose something they were interested in and the teacher crafted lessons around it.

Personalised learning is now a somewhat hackneyed term, and though it didn't have that label all those years ago, that is actually what was happening. A teacher was expected to cope with most of the class doing different things at the same time, with all the detailed planning and organising that entailed. Thus, Charlie could be hammering away in the craft corner knocking out a teapot stand for his mum, while Charlotte was desperately trying to concentrate on her maths. Nevertheless, many class teachers loved the freedom they had. And they achieved remarkable results because they found ways to cope with the fads forced on them by their political and educational masters while ensuring that children made good progress. During my headship, my deputy head ran the most exciting infant classroom I have ever seen but she also made sure that every child left her in the summer able to read.

A young teacher these days would find the primary education of the 1970s and 1980s a foreign country indeed. Today, a curriculum must be strictly followed. Targets are set, levels must be achieved, data have to be gathered. It is all monitored and assessed by a multitude of management teams. The workload is extraordinary, teachers often having to submit precise, detailed work plans electronically, during their own time, to their line manager. Innovation is discouraged. If children don't reach expected national targets, they are hived off into special groups for intense tutoring to ensure that they do, so that politicians can say, "Just look, voters, at how we are raising standards."

Sir Michael apparently believes it is all working splendidly. But I'm constantly talking to people at the chalkface who feel their schools are very unhappy places. And if there is no pleasure in education, how will our children grow up with a love of it?

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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