The fads keep on coming

5th October 2012 at 01:00

"At every level, too many educational leaders substitute their judgement and experience for the latest trend in thinking, propagated by whoever is above them."

This statement is from a recent TES article ("The creeping rise of follow my leader", Comment, 21 September) and I couldn't agree more. So why is this happening? Fear, pure and simple. If you don't want your classroom life to be made a misery, you have to jump on the bandwagon. If you want another job, or a promotion, you need a reference from your head. And frequently heads only bow to local authority, Ofsted or government pressure because they can be removed if they don't achieve the results being demanded. After all, these days children are merely outcome units.

Although achievement-raising seems so aggressive now, and senior managers are pressured to adopt methods they don't necessarily agree with, to a certain extent it was ever thus. Over the years I've found that the majority of teachers are enthusiastic, interesting people who simply want to do the best for pupils and don't want to spend time arguing with senior leaders or inspectors. But this does make them vulnerable to the raft of constant changes and initiatives. All of these increase the bureaucratic workload and most actually take time away from teaching children.

I could instantly compile a list of initiatives from the past 40 years that range from the questionable to the truly insane. The "real books" fiasco, for example. Back in the early 1980s, a clever and very able primary teacher decided that a monotonous diet of reading scheme books was very dull for her children. With the support and monetary input of her headteacher, she bought a selection of quality hardback stories - ones she knew from personal experience appealed strongly to children. She carefully graded them into levelled sets, to ensure steady progression in reading ability, and she held a meeting for all the parents, explaining why she was abandoning the old schemes and how essential it was that they read with, and to, their children. Her pupils' reading ability improved in leaps and bounds. The new system spread throughout the school, then locally, and before long inspectors were advertising "real books" as the magic solution for reading.

Like many inspectors, the two in my local authority were overcome with excitement. "Chuck out your reading schemes," they said to us. "Put a 'real' book in front of children and they will be desperate to read. And don't you dare let me see you using those awful reading schemes when we visit, or your promotion is on the line." The pressure was so intense that many teachers actually hid their reading schemes when inspectors were in the building.

What the inspectors failed to understand, of course, was that the teacher who started all this had carefully graded her books, in effect creating an absorbing and innovative reading scheme, but a reading scheme nevertheless, and that teachers and parents at schools adopting the idea really had to work hard at it. It wasn't enough just to thrust decent books at children, expecting them to read by osmosis. And many inner-city schools couldn't afford enough books anyway. Eventually the system fell out of favour.

A little too late, really. Because hundreds of inner-city 10-year-olds still couldn't read.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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