How the age of discovery was lost

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Diane Hofkins looks forward to a time when schools will once again feel free to experiment

The day the Commons education select committee's report on reading was published, a taxi came to collect me at an ungodly hour talk about phonics to those six or seven earlybirds watching ITV News 24 at 7am.

No sooner had I settled in the cab than the story came on the radio: 20 per cent of 11-year-olds cannot read properly. The taxi driver was outraged. If they can't read by 11, then it is just too late, he said. What's wrong with schools? Why aren't they teaching them better? Unwisely, I confessed this was the very story I was going to the studio to discuss, but the ensuing conversation did at least distract me from feeling nervous.

According to Roy Lowe, visiting professor at London University's institute of education, this sort of reaction has its origins in the 1950s and 1960s, when there was a sea change in the ownership of British newspapers. This change "has a great deal to do with the popular debate on schooling", he told an audience at the institute. "At the precise moment that the British press was lost to its local proprietors and came under the influence of multinational conglomerates, it reconstructed itself in a form which was better able to peddle what I construe as a kind of political fundamentalism."

Education, he says, felt the first blast. "In 1936 the News Chronicle had run a competition inviting readers to design their model school. By 1969 that was unthinkable. The cry that 'education isn't working' proved a far better one to meet the new popular taste and sell newspapers. This left educators open to a new and pervasive rhetoric which began to shift the balance of power around schooling."

Professor Lowe's talk was called "Whatever happened to progressivism? The demise of child-centred education in modern Britain". His audience - dominated by people well past retirement age - seemed to answer the question. But why are so many teachers today wary of the more open-ended, experience-based learning popular in the 1960s, 70s and 80s? Today's TES reveals that only 4 per cent of primary school networked learning communities focus on the arts, while two-thirds choose literacy, numeracy or both.

Roy Lowe points out that school staff today are more likely to go on a management course than a curriculum course, while 30 or 40 years ago, in-service training was a chance to learn about innovative ideas on teaching. His argument is that the "political fundamentalism" of the popular press set the context for such "new right" think-tanks such as the Centre for Policy Studies and publications such as the Black Papers, with their anti-comprehensive school and back to basics arguments.

Over time, Conservatives have increasingly set the agenda - most obviously under Margaret Thatcher, when people previously viewed as the lunatic fringe ran education quangos, but as everyone knows, it is still going on.

New Labour's literacy and numeracy drives have been more audacious and controlling than anything from the Tories in the 1990s.

It means that in the political world of 2005 creativity is not important in its own right. It is fine when it leads to better literacy, self-esteem, behaviour, a move up the league table. Its intrinsic value has to be defended.

Roy Lowe says that even though the post-war years did bring the greatest autonomy in history for teachers, there was "the development of a McCarthyite rhetoric around schooling in Britain at the very moment that the 'red scare' was dominating the Senate hearings in the United States".

Geoffrey Bantock, professor at Leicester in the late 1940s, appears to have been the Chris Woodhead of his day, arguing that "the emphasis on experiment ... conceals a basic uncertainty, an unconscious attempt to cover insufficiency by surface agitation".

He attacked HR Hamley, a professor at the London institute, who had said, "The glory of the project is its spontaneity. No one knows how it will turn out".

Writing in The TES in 1950 Bantock said that "the expectation that children can somehow recreate from within themselves forms which it has taken many years to evolve seems to me both dangerous and time-wasting".

This is where I must part company from Professor Lowe. It seems to me they are both right. In extreme versions of "discovery learning", exposed by Professors Robin Alexander and Nigel Bennett, teachers felt they must not straightforwardly tell children anything, and in one amazing example, wasted substantial amounts of time trying to elicit the day of the week from a class that simply had no idea.

But open-ended learning, without fear of the Office for Standards in Education, targets, right answers, time constraints, covering the curriculum, the local education authority, the head or Andrew Adonis must regain its rightful place in the primary curriculum.

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Creativity for control freaks, Teacher magazine, 13

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