A milestone for standards

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Keir Bloomer says that Achievement for All deserves a fair hearing.

In retrospect Achievement for All is likely to be seen as a milestone in at least two significant respects. Few, if any, reports of comparable importance have been produced with less direct input from the broader educational community. There can also be few cases of a Government accepting with such urgency, without criticism or seeking comment, all of the recommendations of such a far reaching document. The document marks a decisive step away from the self-congratulatory style of past reports. Although acknowledging the significant achievements of the system and, in particular, highlighting the quality of class teaching, it concentrates upon perceived shortcomings which it portrays as being substantial and in need of urgent attention. Furthermore, by giving emphasis to the extent to which performance falls short of targets and standards compare unfavourably with at least some overseas competitors, it shifts the debate significantly from self-evaluation of educational processes to comparative evaluation of outcomes.

The report relies on three kinds of evidence to support its view that significant improvements are required:- statistics of examination performance indicate a worthwhile improvement over the past decade but a considerable shortfall when compared with the education and training targets for the year 2000; school inspections show a need for improved progression in pupils' knowledge and skills from one stage to another and for improvements in standards in various curricular areas both in primary schools and, more particularly, in secondary 1 and secondary 2; international comparisons suggest that Scottish education is falling behind the standards being achieved in the Pacific Rim with particular weaknesses evident in mathematics (where some aspects of pupils' attainment have consistently declined), written English and science.

The inspectors conclude that a significant underlying cause of current failures lies in the way in which pupils are grouped into classes and into teaching groups within classes. While the prevailing method of mixed-ability grouping can in theory lead to effective teaching, in practice it makes excessive organisational demands on teachers. Time spent in organising resources or managing pupils' learning is not devoted to what the report describes as "direct teaching". It is this excessive commitment to classroom organisation which, in the opinion of the Inspectorate, explains why good teaching does not automatically lead to high levels of attainment.

This argument comes close to recognising some of the arguments on workload that teachers' unions have advanced in recent years. It leads, however, to conclusions which, while certainly designed to simplify the teaching process, will not be universally welcomed in the profession. The report's central recommendation is that, so far as possible, pupils should be grouped according to ability, not on an inflexible basis, such as streaming, but according to attainment in individual areas of study.

The way in which the report is written could lead many readers to underestimate the all pervasive nature of this recommendation. In essence, the report advocates an immediate increase in setting and a fairly general use of attainment groups where setting is not feasible. As the 5-14 programme progresses, the number of areas in which setting is a realistic option will increase. At no point in the report's section of conclusions and recommendations is mixed-ability organisation positively recommended.

Given these radical conclusions, the report is perhaps surprisingly lightweight. Excluding foreword and appendices, the text occupies fewer than 30 pages and totals fewer than 10,000 words. Even more significantly, it proceeds largely by assertion rather than argument. The findings rest heavily on confident but unsubstantiated statements such as "the completion of the 5-14 programme will provide further opportunities to raise attainment", and "setting makes fewer management demands and learning can be more readily matched to pupils' needs".

Parts of the report also seem designed to resonate to a particular political agenda although they are no doubt free of partisan intent. The inclusion in the subtitle of the word "selection" is as misleading as it will be gratuitously offensive to many readers. More significantly - and more adroitly - the new concept of "direct teaching" seems designed to give the appearance of bringing to Scotland the debate on "whole-class teaching" while skilfully maintaining a broad professional view of what constitutes recommended practice.

Criticism is likely, however, to be more directed towards the report's omissions. Apart from the relatively fleeting references to school ethos, the report is concerned only with the cognitive aspects of education. Most of the arguments which have been advanced in favour of mixed-ability grouping in a comprehensive setting are effectively ignored. There are references to the potentially divisive effects of streaming (or setting) but no real acknowledgement of the notion that educating all children together can help to promote social cohesiveness. Arguments that raising academic standards may have to be balanced against other educational and social outcomes receive no mention.

Furthermore it is clear that the argument in favour of raising standards of attainment is essentially an economic one. References to the Pacific Rim evidently reflect a concern to maintain economic competitiveness. In a sense, it is unfortunate that this reasoning is not made more explicit. A very sound case can be made out that economic success is a necessary, if not a sufficient, requirement for social harmony.

If these understated philosophical objectives are accepted, the thrust of the report's argument follows with apparent logic. Restricting the range of attainment within the teaching group seems likely to reduce the task of classroom management, creating time for direct teaching. In theory, the effect should be a gain in the quality of learning of pupils of all abilities, although it is worth pointing out that international comparisons do not seem to indicate the superiority of any particular organisational pattern.

In any event, it is worth questioning the extent to which the report is concerned with means rather than ends. In an age of ostensibly decentralised decision-making, it is debatable whether a centrally commissioned report leading to confident prescriptions on matters such as class organisation is necessarily the best way forward. After all, the circumstances which the report condemns were brought about by exactly the same process. If the lessons of the past 20 or 30 years suggest that earlier prescriptions were wrong, they should surely also suggest that there is room for experiment, diversity and an open market in ideas.

Opinions will obviously differ on the central issue of setting and grouping by attainment. There is, however, no doubt that practicability is an important issue for teachers and one which has not been given sufficient prominence in recent development programmes. The report's concentration on making the teaching task manageable is to be welcomed, although its prescription that everyone should abandon patterns of organisation which many now operate successfully is much more questionable. The sweeping nature of the recommendations is likely to provoke strong opposition which may mean that the report's considerable merits may be ignored. It manages to balance appreciation of the quality of teaching with acknowledgement that Scotland's education system is not beyond criticism. It focuses clearly on the central task of teaching but does not retreat into some of the more sterile debates prevailing south of the border. It deserves to promote constructive debate although it is regrettable that the Government's circular seeks only compliance.

Keir Bloomer is director of education in Clackmannan.

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