Children matter, not tradition

18th July 1997 at 01:00
Simon and Garfunkel sang memorably that the places to find the words of the prophet are subway halls and tenement walls. There is a great and simple truth in this, and it can be demonstrated by escorting a sick child home in Easterhouse, where certain tenement walls contain some of the most direct and pithily harsh statements of social truth that you might want to find anywhere.

At another level, I library-crawl as a hobby, and in every library I wander through, I see a pristine copy of 30 Years on - Is Comprehensive Education Alive and Well or Struggling to Survive?, by Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty. Certainly the books are in trouble. They sit on the shelves as virgin as the day they left the printers, and almost all I have seen have only one date stamp.

To me the prophetic message is clear. No one, and certainly not parents, seems to have much interest in expanding or extending the comprehensive ideal except unreconstructed egalitarians, because society and social aspirations have moved on to something different. Parents have grasped the prophetic message drummed home by our political leaders, Tories and Nouvelle Labour alike, that their children's current moments of education are defining ones, are their children's one chance, and they show little interest in other people's aspirations towards collectivism.

It is saddening and maddening to read then that our main teaching union leadership has not quite yet turned into that kind of wavelength, that it may possibly be forced to unhook its designer blinkers of ideology and face the possibility that it is reading the signs of the times if not wrongly, then inexpertly. My chief concerns lie with the Educational Institute of Scotland's approach to the 5-14 programme as indicated at its conference recently, and the appeal that a halt for reflection is called for. I wonder how parents would react if they suspected that this call might be a formula for stagnation, in view of the fact that 5-14 is and remains the statement of our national guidelines.

Perhaps it is just as well that most of the rhetoric of a conference passes into the void. How could we explain to independent observers the mind-set that suggests that teachers are unable to cope with a curriculum that includes language, maths, environmental studies, expressive arts and religious and moral education, because they fragment that curriculum and destroy what is hopefully called the child-centred approach?

Some kind of time-slip seems to have taken place. The Primary Memorandum, the bible of our child-centred approach, introduced environmental studies as a modular part of the curriculum, and devoted individual chapters to what we now call expressive arts, all to be undertaken by the class teacher. My abiding recollections of the Primary Memorandum heyday (and I am still a fan) are sadly not of child-centred anything, but of part-time education, no visiting specialists, and almost invisible advisory provision.

Marxist historians urge the need to avoid "invented traditions". I suspect that our sometimes contorted efforts over the past 25 years to breathe some life into a child centred approach are like the Big Bad Wolf trying to demolish the Third Pig's abode. The curriculum of the Primary School in Scotland was shunted aside by the Primary Memorandum. This in turn has been sidelined by 5-14. History may regrettably conclude that our flirtation with the child-centred approach must remain just that.

In the heat of a conference anything goes. Even outside it, attitude is still getting in the way, for the Luddite tendency remains alive and well in our unions, ready to skew rather than reflect the curricular realities that children require, parents demand and politicians prescribe. Perhaps in the interesting times we live in, the time has come to agree that following Ned Lud has to be a self-centred, self-absorbed aberration and indulgence that will help drive unions closer to the margins of relevance.

Just about the last place for teachers' representatives to be loitering today.

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