A strange attack by the chief inspector

19th January 1996 at 00:00
I refer to the pamphlet written by Christopher Woodhead, chief inspector of schools and published by Politeia, a right-wing think tank ("Chief inspector's standards attack", TES, December l5). Whether it is wise for the chief inspector to be writing in his official capacity for a political think tank is an issue that I leave for others to debate. My aim here is to comment on the way in which Woodhead has reported my work and his astonishing statement that my influence may go a long way to explain why standards are so low at ages 7, 14, GCSE and A-level (why not GNVQ as well, we might ask?).

The quote which Chris Woodhead uses in the pamphlet was taken from my presidential address to the British Educational Research Association in September 1992 and was concerned with policy-making in education, and other fields, which in recent years has tended to ignore much of the debate and research evidence. I made the point that we need to use what we know about learning and cognition to produce flexible, competent learners who will be able to conquer new content, skills and activities as we compete, and they survive, in a fast-changing world.

Woodhead implies that I advocate forms of education in which teachers do not teach and students discover things for themselves. In fact I do no such thing either implicitly or explicitly. I quote a well-respected American researcher Lauren Resnick saying that these new moves in education do not mean "that students can be left to discover everything for themselves". Nowhere do I suggest, or even imply, that children do not need basic skills. I certainly did not say that the "student should be left to switch on the world for himself"(sic). Woodhead also sets up a false dichotomy between acquiring basic skills and learning higher order skills. Research tells us - and the HMI used to keep reminding us in their reports - that learning and consolidating basic skills takes place best in a variety of contexts and ways, not just in basic skills lessons.

In my pamphlet "What we know about effective primary teaching" I bring together research on teaching in classrooms, and the theoretical work from child development and learning specialists, to help develop a model of effective teaching at primary level. In this publication I argue that teachers need to teach and that whole-class teaching at primary level is a vital way for teachers to make sure that all children are listening to sustained discourse from the teacher, and are exposed to sustained high-level interaction between teacher and pupil. In that piece I also point out, in agreement with Woodhead and colleagues in their 1992 "Three wise men report", that teachers need a range of teaching strategies.

That I have been misrepresented by Woodhead is clear, both to me and to those who know my work. What I cannot understand is why. I do not think it is because he is badly briefed. I know that senior officials within the Department for Education and Employment and the Office for Standards in Education speak highly of my pamphlet which they regard as providing sensible, manageable, evidence-based advice for primary teachers and educators.

I hope my work does have an impact on teachers. In the past two months I have spoken to more than 400 teachers in five LEAs in England and Wales about classroom assessment by teachers; feedback to pupils to support learning, and how to improve the quality of teaching and learning. I suspect few of these teachers would recognise my work in Chris Woodhead's comments.

I am also sorry that he saw fit to drag my colleagues at the Institute of Education into this attack. The work being carried out by the Institute in the area of developing teachers' skills in assessment, the school effectiveness and improvement movement, and our pioneering work on value-added measures suggest that we are not trying to hinder the path of educational reform.

As it happens, I have another pamphlet about to be published, by the Curriculum Association. It is called "Effective primary assessment" and is about informal classroom assessment; how teachers can use feedback from this assessment to help pupils understand what they know and can do, and what they need to do next to improve. It aims to develop the quality of teaching and learning in the basics and higher order skills, through good teaching and constructive assessment by teachers, and thus to raise real standards of education. I hope Mr Woodhead finds the time to read it.

Professor Caroline Gipps is dean of research at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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