A mantra does not a lesson make;Last Word

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
"Fifteen-fifteen-twenty-ten". Does this mean anything to you? The chorus line of a rugby song? The dates of some obscure dynasty? An advertising jingle? If you are a primary teacher, it could soon be your daily mantra.

Fifteen-fifteen-twenty-ten is the "official" Department for Education and Employment structure of the literacy hour. There will be 15 minutes of whole-class "shared text", 15 minutes of whole-class "focused word or sentence work", 20 minutes of "group and independent work", and 10 minutes of whole-class revision. Fifteen-fifteen-twenty-ten.

This will operate day in, day out; week in, week out; month after month; year upon year; from reception class to the end of Year 6; seven years in all, or 1,260 daily slices of fifteen-fifteen-twenty-ten. And that is just the literacy hour. When the numeracy hour does a similar thing, primary children will have 2,520 predictable daily time shares. Pass the Prozac, Mabel.

It is all very well to say that these timings are "approximate". So what? Is "fourteen-sixteen-nineteen-eleven" any better? It is the predictability of the macro-strategy and its insensitivity to the context that are the killers, not the exact length of the units.

The lesson starts with half an hour or so of whole-class teaching, whether children are five or 11, clever or slow, excited or bored, whether 30 minutes is too little or too much. The decision has been made in London.

Let us be clear what I am objecting to. I am in favour of giving a high profile to literacy and numeracy. I like the idea of literacy and numeracy hours. I personally love phonics, giving children structure and the means of attacking new and unfamiliar words. I love phonics (I repeat this, in case some idiot who skim reads this article says I do not, even though I have taught phonics for 30 years and included it in a reading scheme I wrote).

I am objecting to two things: (1) the suggestion that the fifteen-fifteen-twenty-ten literacy hour structure is compulsory, when it is not; (2) the bogus claims that have been made about non-existent international research evidence.

Tony Blair expressed my sentiments very clearly when he made a major speech on education at Didcot girls' school in June 1996. He said: "It is not of course up to central government to prescribe classroom organisation in 25,000 schools. Professional judgment according to local circumstances is important." That, in a nutshell, is my first point.

Fifteen-fifteen-twenty-ten is in fact VOLUNTARY, but the impression being given in the press is that teachers must do it. Not true. I have culled the thesauruses and dictionaries of the world to find the most precise expression for the identical pattern of lesson plan being obligatory for all.

The correct technical term is: "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!" My second concern is that "international research" is said to justify the fifteen-fifteen-twenty-ten pattern and what goes in it. No it doesn't. There is no interplanetary or intergalactic evidence either, unless I have missed some Neptunian journal article, or Alpha Centauri monograph.

In the Leverhulme Primary Improvement Project, which I directed, we did find certain common features among the expert teachers we studied. They equipped children with autonomy, celebrated success, set high standards, matched books to individual interests, but they had many different individual ways of expressing these features.

We never saw one teacher using the fifteen-fifteen-twenty-ten split, or indeed any identical macro-strategy, day in day out. I should be grateful for details of firm research evidence, (as opposed to travellers' tales and flights of the imagination), for everyone singing in unison. One reference will do.

To satisfy this desire for compulsory uniformity, perhaps the big toe of every primary teacher in the land could be wired up to some London-based electronic factory hooter.

Booop! All start the first 15 minutes. Booop! Now switch to the next quarter hour. Booop! Time for 20 minutes of group work. Booop! Fetch your brain back from the fridge and see if the children are still awake, or indeed present. Booop! Now it's time for the art hour. Booop! First 15 minutes: painting by numbers.

Some claim that having a compulsory national straitjacket will cut planning time. No it won't. It needs more effort to flog the same dead horse into life every day. Nor will it save teachers from reinventing the wheel.

The phrase "reinventing the wheel" is often overdone, but here it is a good analogy. The diagrams of the literacy hour are wheel-shaped. Like the wheel, however, the literacy hour should be capable of taking infinite forms. Wheels can be big or small, thick or thin, spoked or unspoked, tyred or tyreless.

Moreover, stick too rigidly to the wheel and you will never invent the ship, the helicopter, or the hovercraft. Swear solely by buttons, and there will be no zips, ribbons, hooks, or Velcro. If doctors had been too committed to the leech, they would never have discovered penicillin, developed the vaccine that eradicated smallpox, perfected transplants, created artificial hip joints.

You've got heart disease? No problem. Fifteen minutes with a leech on your bum, 15 minutes with it off again, 20 minutes to swallow three tadpoles and a newt, 10 minutes to be sick. Fifteen-fifteen-twenty-ten. International research has proved it. Works every time, squire.

Fifteen men on a dead man's chest. Yo ho ho ... oops! Sorry, but the mantra is beginning to addle my brain. Fifteen-fifteen-twenty-ten, that's it.

I would be lost without wheels. But the wheel goes round and round and round and round until it wears out. Fifteen-fifteen-twenty-ten. Fifteen-fifteen-twenty-ten. That is the twelfth time I have mentioned it. Only another 2,508 to go and primary education will be over.

I love the wheel. I just don't want to be one.

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