For Blair, 1997 is Year Zero

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Robin Alexander on how this government has ditched decades of accumulated wisdom about primary teaching

Excellence and Enjoyment: a strategy for primary schools looks inviting.

Its cheerful pictures support a welcome message. Gone, we are told, are prescription and teacher-bashing: vision and freedom are back.

Judgment must be reserved on the new approach to target-setting but some of the document's other claims can be tested now.

Examining these claims, it becomes clear that the Government has ignored evidence from researchers and professionals, past and present - evidence that, for example, throws doubt on the literacy and numeracy strategies'

effectiveness.

Take the insistence that the strategies must be "embedded" not just in English and mathematics but in other subjects too. The document justifies this by saying that the strategies "have, according to all those who have evaluated them, been strikingly successful at improving the quality of teaching and raising standards in primary schools". This claim looks reasonable: even allowing for recent levelling-off, improvement in test results since 1998 coincides with the strategies, so QED.

But is correspondence sufficient proof? Look more closely at the University of Toronto's official evaluation, commissioned by Department for Education and Skills: "Intended changes in teaching and learning have not yet been fully realised ... it is difficult to draw conclusions about the effect of the strategies on pupil learning." If that doesn't dent the DfES's claim of universal endorsement, then consider research reports from London, Newcastle, Cambridge and Reading universities, all even more cautious about the strategies' impact. The DfES would do well to study such evidence more carefully, not least in light of this year's test results.

It is not just that evidence is misrepresented: more commonly, it is simply ignored. The primary strategy's insistence on individualised teaching counters three decades of classroom research - not to mention psychological and neuroscientific evidence - which attests to the irreplaceable power of spoken language and collective activity in the development of mind and brain. But then, speaking and listening - that vital point at which research on development, learning and teaching converge - are only fleetingly mentioned.

Instead we have the strategy's "principles of teaching and learning":

"Ensure that every child succeeds ... Build on what learners already know ... Make learning vivid and real... make learning enjoyable" and so on.

Apart from the feel-good factor, what teacher reading these would thank the DfES for an insight of profound and novel value? The only one of the listed "principles" that states more than the obvious is "promote assessment for learning" - a nod to the research of Paul Black and his colleagues.

Evidence misused, evidence ignored: then there's evidence discovered 25 years too late. Citing the Office for Standards in Education's recent Successful primary schools report, the strategy tells us that success in the basics and a broad curriculum go hand-in-hand. But Her Majesty's Inspectorate demonstrated this essential relationship in its primary survey in 1978.

In fact Ofsted itself has made this point before, in its 1997 analysis of the relationship between KS2 test results and curriculum breadth. The Government's perverse response in January 1998? To make the non-core subjects optional in all but name; and to herald an era in which, in many primary schools, they all but disappeared. Now, and after having caused damage with its narrow curriculum, the Government tells us that we can have breadth and balance after all.

One could go on and cite further insights and experience ignored. Indeed, in Excellence and Enjoyment it is as if, apart from two or three expedient fragments, research and even inspection never existed. The strategy is part of a political world view in which history and enlightenment began in 1997.

Before then, according to Downing Street adviser Michael Barber, British teachers floundered in a mire of "uninformed professional judgment", which Thatcher replaced by "uninformed prescription" before Blair ushered in his "era of informed professional judgment".

What a historical travesty. The information base for teachers and governments from the 1960s onwards was vast and illuminating: international achievement studies; HMI reports and surveys; national commissions; tests by the now disbanded Assessment of Performance Unit and local education authorities; Commons inquiries; the outpourings of curriculum quangos; university research; professional literature; and much more besides.

None of this, apparently, counts. To be "informed" is not to respect the richness of such accumulated evidence, experience and insight and learn from it, but to know only what is officially approved, and to comply. That is the crushing judgment which lurks behind the primary strategy's cheery countenance, and that is why the strategy treats evidence, and history itself, with such disdain.

THEISSUE, FRIDAY MAGAZINE 11

Robin Alexander is professor of education at the University of Cambridge.

His detailed critique of the primary strategy, which formed part of a public lecture, can be obtained from Sally Roach at Cambridge's faculty of education. Email saer2@cam.ac.uk or ring 01223 742029

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