Friend or foe to flexibility?;Opinion

15th October 1999 at 01:00
With the arrival of the numeracy and literacy strategies teachers have been presented with approved 'methods that work' but how does that tally with creative freedom, asks Andrew Davis.

ENGLAND is now awash with literacy and numeracy consultants. One of their key tasks is demonstration lessons. Demonstrating what, precisely? The Department for Education and Employment says research proves that certain teaching methods raise standards.

So presumably the idea is that teachers can view their local expert giving two or three lessons using the approved methods. They can then transfer these approaches to their own classrooms and raise standards there.

But suppose teachers begin a lesson intending a specific method. If they respond to pupils during their sessions, perhaps varying their style, organisation, timing or sequencing as appropriate, then 10 different teachers will teach 10 different lessons.

This will be so even if their classes are roughly matched for age and attainment, and the lessons are meant to be about the same subject matter. On the face of it, professional flexibility seems incompatible with using a readily identifiable method.

Must teachers use these methods? It depends who you talk to, or which Office for Standards in Education team is visiting at the time. If it is felt that national tests results are worse than they should be and teachers are not using the "methods that work", they are likely to come under considerable pressure.

This is all very odd. On the one hand schools and teachers are being held to account for their pupils' learning. Inspectors criticise schools accordingly. On the other hand we now have "methods that work".

Shouldn't the designers of the national literacy and numeracy strategies take the blame if standards fall, or the credit if they rise? Have teachers not become mere technicians, implementing teaching strategies devised by the real experts? This is certainly an argument against payment by results for teachers. The money should go directly to the method creators.

Where does this leave OFSTED? Its handbook says the choice of teaching methods is a matter for the teacher. Inspectors just scrutinise teachers' effectiveness, defined as "the extent to which (their methods)..extend or deepen pupils' knowledge and understanding..." However, OFSTED evidently think they already know which methods work. So why don't they admit that it is these that they are looking for? After all, inspectors cannot easily detect what 30 pupils have learned as a result of a particular lesson.

The DFEE and OFSTED will give my arguments short shrift. Their sentiments may be expressed as follows. Of course they respect teacher professionalism! Flexibility is the watchword. For instance, recent signals from the National Literacy Strategy make it perfectly clear that the government is offering teachers helpful guidelines, but not a straitjacket.

Now flexibility would be quite sensible. For instance, a plenary session at the end of the literacy or numeracy lesson comes in all kinds of different shapes and sizes, even according to the Government's own strategy documents. Consider the recommended mentaloral sessions at the beginning of the numeracy lesson. Again, these just might vary a little from class to class and from day to day. In fact the DFEE often fails to identify approaches which are sufficiently specific for research into their effectiveness to be possible.

Perhaps our literacy and numeracy consultants help us to understand the methods. Specific classroom applications are crucial, and our "leading teachers" provide these.

Yet what status are we justified in according to these applications? It is pretty unlikely that research evidence can be marshalled in their support. After all, many of them surfaced in schools piloting the new strategies. Take those mentaloral numeracy sessions. Some schools asked children to respond with "show me" number cards to maximise participation.

Soon this idea figured in official video training material and was demonstrated by consultants. In people's minds it began to be equated at least in part with the oralmental "method" itself.

Because many teachers feel under great pressure to conform they are keen to discover illustrations of the methods which have met with official approval. Understandably some then proceed to use them quite indiscriminately. Number fans or place value cards in mentaloral sessions may often be splendid. However, perhaps they are not always a good technique.

To sum up, the Government is left with a dilemma. Either it prescribes methods very tightly, in which case it cannot blame teachers if the worst happens. Or it is flexible, in which case the methods lose their identity. If so, the DFEE, despite claims to the contrary, cannot possibly have evidence that the methods "work".

Andrew Davis's pamphlet "Educational Assessment: a Critique of Current Policy" is the first in a series published by the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain. Available, priced pound;6.99, from The Education Bookshop, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H OAL. 0171- 612 6050. There will be a symposium on it at the University of London, Institute of Education on November 2 Contact Judy Morrison 0171-612 6750

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