Cloning the key stage kids
Some time ago I wrote a paper for the National Association for Primary Education called "Not another sunflower". It was about gains and losses. It was so called because I had recently seen identical things going on in 11 disparate primary schools in the North-east. I was profoundly depressed. I felt that if I saw another cloned Van Gogh sunflower or version of Monet's garden, I would be sick. After 38 years in education I was seeing practice worse than anything since the 1950s.
For me, the position at statutory school age is more bleak than at any time I can recall. The Dearing review to slim the curriculum promised much, and while it defused an intolerable situation for the then secretary of state, it has not lived up to its promise.
Moreover, despite the fact that there is no research to back up the terms, even teachers now talk as though children fall logically into key stages. How such (Black Paper) language has been accepted so uncritically by the teaching profession utterly defeats me. These silly terms mask individual differences: they make assumptions that "developmentally based practice" is almost unnecessary. They give credence to the opposite of "child-centredness", by creating an illusion that children are uniform, comparable and (presumably) infinitely interchangeable. In a year when we recall with some horror and soberness the stupidity of the mass slaughter of the First World War, am I alone in fearing that we are gradually returning the education system to a position which provided the seed-bed for encouraging such stupidity?
Nowadays it seems popular to deride the 1967 Plowden Report, to misrepresent its attempts to put the child at the centre of the curriculum, to accuse it of having caused a series of societal ills. But the tenets of Plowden were surely right. The central unit of the curriculum is the question, not the fact; as Desmond Morris's old zoology teacher apparently said: "Good learning is about questionning answers, rather than answering questions."
About 18 months ago, in Norway, I met a teacher educator who told me that "you British do not like children, only dogs". I was shocked, but perhaps there is something in it. After all, we sent them to Australia, executed them, sent them down mines and up chimneys. Moreover, we still have the bones of a divisive class system showing. We even have some people extolling the old grammar schools, which, you will recall, were largely replaced because they wasted so many of the children who had already been creamed off from the masses! Sometimes, when I read the misrepresentations of teaching and teacher training in the tabloid press, I think my Norwegian friend might have been right. Why are we so keen to operate in slogans, to suddenly be told (by those who should know better) that "Plowden should be buried"? Why is it now that "teaching from the front" is so admirable, or "streaming" so desirable? Don't they know that there has been plenty of research that shows that teachers often "teach from the front" and always have, when appropriate. Is there a simple answer, as many teachers wearily tell me, that things simply go in crude cycles?
Individualism is out, or in; competitiveness matters, co-operation doesn't. Do any of you out there get sick of it all? Have the Black Papers of the late 1960s, with their crude, simplistic arguments, been accepted? Has everyone forgotten Bernstein's paper concluding that "school cannot compensate for society"? Did anyone notice in the recent Office for Standards in Education Pacific Rim comparisons that a measure of home circumstances was still the best single predictor of school performance? Have people forgotten the enlightened HMI, such as Robin Tanner, who believed that education should bring pleasure and aesthetic awareness?
It seems to me that "child-centredness" contains much to commend. Of course, it has been dangerously misunderstood, not least by some of the philosophereducationists. At its best, it means that you should not define education in narrow, functional terms. It is not just about getting the country richer. It is about the culture. Be on the child's side. Know that all curricula are a compromise. Recall that learning is active, not passive. Remember that good teaching starts from where the child is, not from where some ill-assorted, externally-designed content mass is. To those who say "but content matters", I would point out that I have been in about 11 countries relatively recently. and all of them appeared to think that they had developed the printing press, the aeroplane and penicillin. I am convinced that process dominates content any day - go outside onto the street and ask people to recall their school days, if you don't believe me.
Last year, when I was lecturing in Kent, a woman in her 30s came up to me and said: "You don't remember me, sir, but I remember the skull." I had taught her class of seven-year-olds in south-east London. One day one of the pupils found a skull in a back garden, probably the relic of an old plague pit. We had abandoned the curriculum and worked on that skull. That woman had been in my class for two years. She recalled nothing of the "official" curriculum, but she remembered me and the skull. She is an archaeologist now!
Please can we stop trading in half-truths and downright lies? Education is not indoctrination. National curricula will have to keep changing. Testing is largely useless - do you know anyone who gets taller by being measured? Who cares if the Taiwanese do better in certain aspects of maths? How many Nobel prize-winners have they? Are their adult students as independent as ours? Let's recall that our primary schools are good places to be, that teachers for the most part work hard; above all that our children and our teachers deserve better than constant vilification by the media. Moreover, they need, as Sir Claus Moser pointed out in a recent RSA lecture, support from our Chief Inspector and from senior policy makers.
Child-centredness works. It is simply about matching the learning to the child, building on their motivation and curiosity. Have we forgotten the slow march forward, the research which showed how damaging streaming was? If we are so keen on comparative education measures, do we know that Finland (whose nine-year-olds came top in an international reading study) is moving back to a more child-centred curriculum, that teacher training there is relatively independent and not governed by some half-baked agency? Or is it simply as my Norwegian friend said: "You British do not like children?"
* Philip Gammage is professor of education at Nottingham University.