Child-led ethos is recipe for disaster

18th September 2009 at 01:00

Last summer, after serving for 18 years as a priest in the Anglican Church, I decided it was time for a change. After trawling my CV around local primary schools and meeting headteachers, I secured a job as a part-time teaching assistant.

Twenty-seven years ago, I did a PGCE after gaining a history degree, but then went on to do other things. Perhaps now I would find a way back into teaching, I thought. And primary was bound to be easier than comprehensive ...

But it was an eye-opener. The most shocking thing has been the prevailing attitude of the children - each one seems to believe that they are the centre of the universe, the most important person in their world or anyone else's.

This makes it very difficult to forge a sense of a class being and working together. There is little sense of self-discipline or self-control. Children cannot understand why they need to sit still and listen or why they should not wander off to the toilet without asking.

Part of my job was taking small groups for guided reading. I have lost count of the number of times my request for pupils to take their turn has met with an indifferent shrug, or the insolent response of "I don't want to".

Most of the time seemed to be spent in crowd control rather than teaching. The noise levels in class when children are getting on with work is shocking and the class teacher is constantly having to stay on top of this lack of attention while trying to teach.

I have been in classrooms where teachers of 30 years' experience have rolled their eyes in despair at the impossibility of getting children to be quiet for any length of time.

And if, having achieved a relative silence, the teacher is distracted - for example, by someone coming into the classroom to talk to them - the whole room erupts in chat once again. There simply seems to be no concept of respect.

The school I was in advertised its ethos as respecting the child and being child-led. And recent government proposals to let pupils have more of a say in discipline matters and what they are taught seems to me to be a recipe for disaster.

Children need to be led. The child does not know best. We have gone too far down the road of putting the children's desires first. We are raising a generation of young people who believe in their own autocracy. Never mind about stirring up problems for the future - they are with us now.

Methods of teaching have changed over the years, but I sometimes wonder if they are for the better - for example, when the teacher asks the children what they would like to learn about a particular topic.

There seems to be little direct instruction from the teacher at the front of the classroom. I understand the need to equip children with skills so that they can discover things for themselves, but surely they need to be fed some facts?

The most able, motivated children will get on with their work regardless, researching online or in books, making notes, while the less motivated (and this seems to be the majority) waste time doing very little.

Collaborating with a partner too often degenerates into chatting and messing around. If the teacher can teach from the front in an interesting way, then something is going to sink in.

One class had been studying the Tudors, concentrating on architecture, costume, crime and punishment, making their own notes from the internet, but there was little sense of events and politics and dates. One child talked about the Roman Empire existing in the same time period.

It seemed to me that the situation was crying out for a historical timeline that could be copied into their books so that they would always have a reference point.

I have been shocked at how little work actually gets done in a lesson. By the time books have been given out and children have stopped wandering around and getting water to drink (and whose bright idea was that?), going to the toilet, finding pencils and pens, a few sums might be done in their exercise books, or a couple of lines written.

Often the children are merely highlighting lines of text on photocopied pages, and I have seen them using the internet to lift paragraphs without actually reading or understanding their content.

Is it the fault of the teachers? The ones I came across were truly dedicated. But those who have been in the profession for many years seem disgruntled by the changes, and the new young teachers accept that this is the way it is because they have known nothing else. And let's not forget the pressures of media advertising and TV programmes shaping desire and ambition and expectation.

I don't have the answers, but we need to come up with some soon before standards and discipline sink even lower.

Reverend Susan Sarapuk, Former parish priest.

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