Crash, bang, wallop what a creature

17th February 1995 at 00:00
Bash! Take that, you prat! Thwack! Serves you right! Smack! That's one in the eye for you, sunshine! Teachers are responsible for the holed ozone layer and my failure to win a single prize in the National Lottery, so - wallop! You got what was coming!

Oops, sorry about that. Only I was just bashing a few teachers. Gillian Shephard had declared a moratorium on teacher thumping, but the press coverage of Chris Woodhead's speech about progressive teachers smoked out the teacher-bashers. As it has been reinstated as a national sport, I thought I'd don the steel toe-caps and have a go myself.

I read Chris Woodhead's speech with interest. If progressive child-centred teachers are the major obstacle to raising standards, why did smart previous Senior Chief Inspectors never spot this? Eric Bolton dismissed his successor's suggestion that teachers do not want to teach subject matter, saying: "It's ridiculous to believe that the process could grind away like a coffee-grinder without a bean."

But Chris Woodhead was so insistent about these allegations, he had three turns: an article in The Times, a speech, and his annual report. I love a debate about standards or teaching methods, and criticism of low expectations is very important. But I did wonder, Chris, if you'd read carefully your own inspectors' reports. After all, their report on reading, for example, did say that the vast majority of teachers use a mixture of methods.

I am also very confused about the origin of Chris Woodhead's current thinking on these matters. You see, Chris, one of the things we boring old professors of education sometimes do is check out original documents. I have been reading one or two articles written by someone called Chris Woodhead in this very newspaper a few years ago, and there do seem to be differences between that Chris Woodhead and what the present Chris Woodhead has been saying. I shall illustrate. To avoid even more confusion let us call the earlier Chris Woodhead, who at the time was working in a university, training teachers, Wood Chrishead. Now a few years ago, if you remember Chris, your earlier incarnation, Wood Chrishead, wrote an article in The TES headlined "Public facts and private feelings". It said things such as: "Just as education itself has become a scapegoat for economic ills, so within education the arts subjects are having to bear the main brunt of the utilitarian attack."

You must remember it, Chris, because Wood Chrishead got quite impassioned. It was a very eloquent piece, as Wood laid about him: "The economic recession might explain the present hardening of attitudes, the backlash against anything savouring of a progressive ideology" . . . "arts subjects attempt to explore the inner world of private feeling, whereas the curriculum as a whole encourages the successful manipulation of public fact".

The reason I am feeling a bit confused, Chris, is that our friend Wood did sound a bit, well, er, progressive and child-centred. Listen to Wood, now in full flow: "It would be easy to swamp early and inarticulate fumblings after the right form with premature intervention" . . . "the pressure society puts on children to rest content in their prescribed roles as consumer puppets" . . . "'finding oneself in the world' at best means learning to use some of the skills and techniques of enquiry that underlie different forms of knowledge". . ."Merely to echo the Festival of Light in their wilder moments is unlikely to produce any significant change in the quality and relevance of the work that goes on in schools".

Then do you remember, Chris, another TES article by Wood Chrishead entitled "Getting the proper attention"? An excellent piece, but not one that castigated progressive teaching. Quite the reverse. Again it seemed very, well, er, child-centred. Can you recall the content? A bit of an irony here. The kind of teaching Wood attacks is what the post-Dearing version of the national curriculum English document, supervised by his later incarnation, Chris Woodhead, seems to require under Attainment Target 2: "Pupils should be taught to extract meaning beyond the literal, explaining how choice of language and style affects implied and explicit meanings".

Wood wrote that after adults read a poem at home, as one does, we sit silently and think about it. "What happens in the school English lesson? Do teachers allow for this private and silent period of thought? Far from it: in my experience we tend to open fire immediately, with questions about the difficult bits. Or we will make platitudinous andor coercive remarks about how 'powerful' or 'vivid' or 'immediate' the poem is. This at least is the kind of teaching I used to do."

Now this last bit really confused me, Chris. Does it mean there was an even earlier Chris Woodhead, a sort of Woodheadus erectus, who was a traditionalist, and who then, somewhere along the long road to Damascus, became a bit of a liberal, Woodheadus neanderthalensis. before finally becoming traditional again, Woodheadus sapiens? There could be material for a whole set of Dr Who adventures here - Wood meets Chris, Chris meets Wood, Chris and Wood meet Head.

In this TES article, Wood wrote: "One fundamental reason (for not allowing a period of silence) is that we are deeply anxious that the children will take advantage of us and escape our control. Unless we crack the pedagogic whip we fear the circus animals will desert" . . . "'Tell us the answer sir, you know what it is'. To reply that you do not, and that your answer may be theirs, is likely to cause no little upset." Well put, Mr Chrishead.

So there are many effective ways of teaching, and that is why most teachers use a mixture of approaches. Merely to attack "progressives" or "traditionalists" is too crude. Wood Chrishead seems to be talking good sense. I only hope Chris Woodhead will tolerate him.

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