Enough to turn us all to drink

31st January 2003 at 00:00
TODAY'S special word is "roll". The reason is to honour the literacy hour, before it disappears, and to mark all those lessonettes that revolve around a single word. So, children, during our 15 minutes of whole- class language work we are going to use the word "roll" as often as we can.

Education policies nowadays are not announced, they are "rolled out" - presumably because there are so many of them that they have to be kept in a large carpet warehouse on top of a steep hill. The latest policy to be rolled out is that the literacy hour and numeracy hour will be rolled up into one. Everyone will do a forward roll.

Perhaps it will be called the luminary hour. Or will there be maths and linguistics for two hours, known as the malingering hours? That should suit all those teachers who are sick of being told what to do every few minutes, though it poses a dilemma for their GPs. What prescription do you give to those suffering from too much prescription?

Endless policy changes are not good for people. They are like an unending roller coaster: as soon as you have climbed up one mountain you have to whizz down the other side. A Swiss roll. Any teacher who is particularly good at such Alpine teaching will have to be called a "roll model".

What is worse, this switchback is founded on whimsy and political expediency, rather than on rationality, evidence, or best practice. The result is a mish-mash of ideas artificially squashed together. A sausage roll.

I am in favour of having a big bash on literacy and numeracy in the early years, but not of telling teachers what to do every few minutes. This demeans the profession.

The structure of these hours was supposed to be based on research evidence - a huge confidence trick.

I have worked in this research field for more than 30 years, and there is no evidence whatsoever to support the insistence, for example, that every literacy lesson should be in four parts, or end with 10 minutes of whole class review, irrespective of context.

It was merely a device so that the Government could boast that it had compelled teachers to return to traditional methods of whole-class teaching. It is a good job the same philosophy was not applied to driving instruction, making learners sit and listen to mass lectures on the aerodynamics of the clutch, instead of getting out on the road.

Immense, but hopefully not lasting, harm has been done by pretending that there is only one way to teach, and the harvest is now being reaped as more teachers rebel against prescription, or simply quit. The more courageous simply say "Roll off" (or words to that effect), refuse to follow the rules and use their professional judgment.

Every single bloody primary maths lesson is divided into three parts nowadays, like Caesar's Gaul. Why? Is a two-part or four-part maths lesson regarded as somehow shocking or obscene? No one forgets a good teacher, but everyone expunges an automaton from their memory banks. Roll over, robot.

If prescription is the solution, then a few questions must be answered first. For instance, why have literacy and numeracy improved faster in Wales, where they have not enforced a prescribed literacy and numeracy hour? And why have results improved more in science than in maths and English, when science has no nationally imposed strategy, nor a prescribed science hour?

If language proficiency has soared because of central prescription, as the Government argues, then why have national test agencies not had to recalibrate their reading tests? The reason is simple: the average scores on them have not gone up. And why has writing been so disappointing? Because the literacy strategy neglected it - a very bad move, though sensible teachers made their own compensation.

I wonder what the new rolled up literacy and numeracy hour will look like? As a compromise between the two, perhaps there will be three-and-a-half parts to it. Children could write a story about two minus signs who fall in love but then cancel each other out.

Key stage 2 exams will contain questions such as: "If you add three subordinate clauses to five conjunctions and then take away the past participle you first thought of, how many headteachers can fill a four-drawer filing cabinet with government circulars in less than an hour?"

The resultant stress of these endless rollouts is enough to make more teachers turn to drink. Roll out the barrel. The last thing we need for a vibrant future in the 21st century is a profession as pickled as herrings.

Roll out the rollmops. So roll up, roll up. Let's rock and roll. Tomorrow's special word will be "oblivion".

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