Don't run, confront the arguments

5th June 2009 at 01:00

In referring to Chris Woodhead's book A Desolation of Learning, your correspondents (Letters, May 29) concentrate on the person rather than his arguments.

However much one may disagree, as I do, with his belief that selecting children into grammar schools is the only way to educate clever children properly, he raises a number of other serious questions that deserve answers.

For example, is it sensible to set a minimum level of achievement, such as a particular level of the GCSE, that all children are required to reach? The Government believes it is. Professor Woodhead disagrees.

Since Matthew Arnold, most inspectors have been on the Woodhead side of the argument. Christian Schiller, one of the greatest of post-war HMIs, put it this way: "If a minimum of attainments is fixed such that it is in the power of all, it is demonstrably irrelevant to the vast majority and of no practical value. If a minimum is fixed such that only some can reach it, it must demonstrably be beyond the powers of the rest and its imposition will undoubtedly lead to a distortion of their powers. In my view, the goal of a minimum of attainments is incompatible with continuity in the process of learning."

Whether Ofsted agrees with this is unclear, but until politicians do, the hounding of schools with a high proportion of children who will never reach the ever-changing "minimum of attainments" prescribed by government will, presumably, continue.

The important point Professor Woodhead makes is that teachers should be free to develop their own ways of providing worthwhile activities for children for whom they know that externally imposed standards of this kind are wholly inappropriate.

This is an important argument. Others in the book deal with such matters as the importance of subject knowledge, the developing role of Ofsted as an enforcer of government policy rather than an independent agency, and the future of independent education.

The way to deal with the serious educational arguments in Professor Woodhead's book is to engage with them, rather than run away. Sadly, that is what the "eloquent silence" Professor Colin Richards advocated in his letter amounts to.

Sir Peter Newsam, Former chief schools adjudicator, director of London's Institute of Education, and chief education officer for the Inner London Education Authority.

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