Bring back traditional methods

16th October 1998 at 01:00
Instilling a sense of order and discipline is the only way to stop children from falling, says a former head

I haven't read The Anatomy of Failure, the depressing report on standards in English schools. I don't need to. I live with a product of the system.

Here I am, an ex-headteacher; my wife a teacher; and my parents teachers before me; and I have a 14-year-old for whom this report could have been written.

He is a moderately bright, interested, alert and "with it" lad. Not a high-flier but neither is he entirely without brains. But here he is, disaffected, disinterested, anxious to be away from school as quickly as possible. In other words, one of the mass of hundreds, maybe thousands, of average, middle-ability plodders, now under-achieving and uninterested in further schooling.

Primary school failed him and the comprehensive system of 2,000 mixed-ability pupils under a single roof is finishing him off. But his primary failed him shamefully. It left him unable to say his three-times table, or to produce more than half a page of semi-illiterate scrawl. It left him with no notion of concentration or the work ethic - exactly what he and others like him needed.

His purpose-built, state-of-the-art, good practice primary school didn't have the space for every child to have his or her own desk facing a blackboard. It certainly didn't provide him with a headteacher whose philosophy promoted rigorous, whole-class, subject-oriented lessons, where formal, highly focused periods would have served him, and others like him, far better than the child-oriented group work, and mishmashed integrated day offerings that they did receive.

This was a school where traditional methods were frowned upon, not by staff, but by a domineering and articulate head. This was a school where a teacher was reprimanded for carrying out spelling tests.

It gave my son an environment where he could produce countless pieces of unfinished work, to work in bays and areas where the teacher could not see what he, or his group, was doing.

Poor lad. He is one of countless hundreds now filling our comprehensives, whose mental make-up cried out in their formative years for formal drill, disciplined direct teaching and relentless close supervision.

A handful of state primary schools, certainly the one where I was headteacher, continued against all the odds, with tried and trusted traditional methods. We were harangued and harassed by local education authority advisers. We continued to teach children; to discipline them and correct them. We continued to use blackboards. We stood at the front and imparted our knowledge while they learned to listen (and contribute). They were taught to write well-constructed essays. They used grammar books. We taught tables and phonics, and had history lessons long before the national curriculum rediscovered them. All this in spite of the abuse from the new experts.

The children knew why they were in school. They were limited ability children from a poor village, responding to, and gaining from, a system which demanded that they work hard and think in an atmosphere of calm discipline and quiet order.

How many Anatomies of Failure must we have? And is this Government really addressing the still obvious problems and shortcomings? An unworkable literacy hour isn't the answer. Neither is meddling with and semi-dismantling the national curriculum. Some of us had it tamed and in working order, providing a clear and structured lesson framework for children, who need order and discipline.

I look at my 14-year-old with a mixture of anger and resentment and watch him struggle. All I can do now, whenever I do any supply work in schools for more than a day, is re-arrange the desks to face me and the blackboard. And then I can demonstrate better discipline, a calmer atmosphere, improved performances and output.

And when I leave, I see how many teachers in that school are doing the same thing. There is hope yet. Not for my son, maybe. But for others in the future.

The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, lives in Leeds

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