Chasing the tiger's tail

31st July 1998 at 01:00
Standards must be raised but ministers should go cannily on importing radical agendas of change, says John Muir

Much of the recent anxiety about Scottish pupils' performance internationally in mathematics and science turned on the superiority of those Far Eastern countries whose economies have been outstripping ours.

In maths in particular pupils in the so-called tiger economies were apparently streets ahead. This and other evidence has led to a wide-ranging series of initiatives to improve performance in Scottish schools. Teachers, only just coming to terms with the demands of the 5-14 programme in all areas of the curriculum, have been asked to take on board changes in emphasis yet again.

Many in the profession welcome the proposal to return to more regular whole-class teaching for some subjects and a more rigorous revision of mental arithmetic. For young learners the calculator has been put, so to speak, on the back burner.

Cynical teachers, however, wish that the education gurus of the sixties and seventies had left them to continue doing as they had been doing before. Let us not forget that teachers adopting "modern" methods were only doing as college lecturers and the Inspectorate had told them. If the truth be hold, however, a significant minority ignored them anyway.

So what are we to make of the news (TESS, June 26) that as the Asian economies wilt educationists on that side of the world are suggesting that "they move away from schools providing an established body of knowledge to promoting ways of thinking and problem-solving"?

John Greenlees reported that South Korea, one of the economies whose rapid rise was attributed to a high-achieving system of education (particularly in mathematics), is now ordering changes to the curriculum, with more time for information technology and hands-on practical science lessons. It is also "encouraging teachers to adopt new teaching styles including more group work and less whole-class teaching".

Meanwhile in Japan, according to a report by Michael Fitzpatrick, "the school education system, though consistently placed near the top of international comparisons, is now seen as fit only for dismantling". When a prominent Japanese business leader says "Japan now wants more creative, individualistic and imaginative employees", and a report calls for the raising of children "who can think for themselves", schools sit up and listen.

I have written in these pages before that our problem with statistics, including international comparisons, is that it is easy to take text out of context and use it as a pretext for wholesale, often politically motivated, change. The last government's attempt to transform education did not go down well in Scotland, particularly at the initial stages.

We wanted evolution not revolution. Much of what was proposed was highly political, and practice elsewhere in the world was cited in support. Most teachers were not averse to change if it followed real dialogue with the profession and, much to the surprise of ministers, teachers found support from parents, albeit at times guarded.

Although Labour has gone some way to addressing teacher and parent concerns, many would say that it has not gone far enough. Documents such as Improving Mathematics 5-14 and How Good is Our School? are useful for schools, which should always be reviewing their practice to ensure that pupils are not only challenged by our own education system but achieve standards that sit comfortably alongside any international comparison.

The extension of pre-school provision, the early intervention programme, the review of class sizes and extended debate on secondary education among other initiatives are encouraging beginnings on which teachers can build. There should be no let-up until we believe that we have got it right.

The spate of bad news from Far Eastern business houses and the rash of worried analyses should not lead us to backtrack on raising standards in Scottish schools, even if the spur was the apparent association between national prosperity and individual skill at doing sums in school.

Yet before we are again seduced by facile international comparisons and before we embark on any further changes that may unsettle pupils and staff let the spirit of the wary Scot prevail. The advice on the road to improvement should be "ca' canny" - proceed with caution.

John Muir is adviser in primary education for Highland.

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