Hidden beneath the iceberg of orthodoxy

9th May 1997 at 01:00
POLICY AND PRACTICE IN PRIMARY EDUCATION (2nd edition). By Robin Alexander. Routledge, Pounds 14.99

PRIMARY SCHOOLS AND THE FUTURE. By Patrick Whitaker. OUP; Pounds 13.99 (pb); Pounds 42.50 (hb)

In 1973, I travelled hundreds of miles with a group of other teachers to see a much-recommended progressive primary school. In one corner of a buzzing hive of a classroom we found two children working on a lump of plaster of paris about 6ft high. Their contribution to the class project on "cold countries" was, they explained, to spend the day making an iceberg. I think we knew even then that there was something not quite right about this.

Never, though, were we likely to say too loudly anything which might suggest we wanted to return to the ineffective didactic methods which had served children badly for decades. We believed then - with much justification, I might say - that we had the best primary schools in the world. The problem was that we were so wrapped up in issues of teaching philosophy and classroom organisation that we failed to examine what it was that children were actually learning.

That was why it was possible to have a busy, chatty, colourful, co-operative classroom, much visited by smiling experts, in which some children were doing very little that was worthwhile.

Robin Alexander's report in 1991 on the Leeds primary needs programme (published by Routledge the following year as Policy and Practice in Primary Education) enabled us to question the prevailing orthodoxy. So much of what it said rang true, speaking as it did of an approach that "paid rather more attention to teachers and classrooms than to children's learning", and of an interpretation of "flexibility" which "implied that only certain versions of flexibility were permitted".

It made enormous sense. At last we could have - as Alexander himself hoped - "in place of trial by tabloid I a level of debate which reflects the true seriousness and complexity of the issues which confront us". It was a forlorn hope - as Alexander reminds us in his introduction to the second edition of his book. He reproduces some of the more lurid headlines: "Happiness but little learning"; "Doomed by the experts".

Alexander has added three further chapters that show how the Leeds report led first to the primary discussion document which became known as the "Three Wise Men" paper and then to a broad, highly politicised national debate.

The new material makes fascinating and often depressing reading, dealing as it does with the relentless way that the careful work of Alexander and his colleagues was hi-jacked by those in the media and in politics who dearly wanted to believe, and to convince us all, that primary education was failing because of "trendy" methods.

That little sensible non-confrontational discussion of his work took place either in the media or in politics might have upset Alexander more had not such an outcome been dreadfully predictable. He reminds us, however, that the core of the professional reaction to the primary discussion paper was thoughtful and accepting.

Patrick Whitaker is also sad about the way that educational debate is conducted in this country. "(It) is not a fundamental exploration of ideas and possibilities I but a bitter and protracted argument about who is right and who is wrong". Whitaker's book is a careful, scholarly and readable examination of the strengths of primary education, and of how it might need to change. He questions all our assumptions; all of our inherited beliefs - and yet he does it without rancour and with full-hearted appreciation of all that the primary school now achieves.

Both these books are fascinating. Where Alexander stimulates anger at how his work has been hi-jacked, Whitaker, drawing on a wide range of leadership theories and philosophies, points us to truly professional ways of coping with a fast-changing world.

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