It's results that matter - so why not trust the staff?

14th June 1996 at 01:00
In the now-vilified Sixties, teachers had to abandon traditional methods of teaching in favour of more progressive styles. Presumably, the traditional methods had been found wanting - or why would those changes have been introduced?

Now, however, both the major parties seem to agree that this was a mistake. It was quite wrong for political ideology to supersede basic teaching imperatives. Because pupils and students are not acquiring the skills that are needed, teachers must change back to traditional methods. Although I'm long enough in the tooth to remember the first revolution, I have a feeling that I may survive to see this one, too, reversed.

I'm not saying that there is nothing to be done to improve young people's acquisition of skills. But the problem is being approached in the wrong way. What both main parties want - and, believe it or not, what teachers want too - is better results. All those with responsibility for the governance of education have a right to set targets and performance indicators. They have the right to monitor what is going on and call to account those who do not achieve the targets.

But delegation is crucial for effective management - and delegation involves handing down responsibility as well as tasks. If the desired results are achieved, what does it matter how they are achieved? In the Fifties, traditional teachers were attacked for the way in which they taught, irrespective of the success of their pupils and students. Some of them were not good: they were boring, they did not differentiate, they could not establish any relationship with students. But some were excellent teachers, appreciated by their students because they got them through their examinations.

I suspect that the bad teachers stayed bad, even when they adopted more up-to-date techniques. I suspect that some of the good teachers got worse, because they felt unable to adopt a style with which they were uncomfortable. I know that some good teachers became even better, because they adopted new techniques where they saw that they could help them to achieve more, and retained old-fashioned methods where they thought they were still needed. Such teachers were using their professionalism to judge what would be best for their students.

No one style of teaching is better than another. Indeed, the majority of teachers vary their style according to the stage they have reached in the course, the content they are dealing with, the particular group, even the time of day. What has to be consistent is not teaching style but the way teachers handle their classes. Pupils need to know what the rules of behaviour are and what the consequences will be if they break them. They cannot know where to draw the line if their teacher either doesn't know or hasn't pointed it out to them.

One problem with the call for a return to more traditional teaching methods is the hidden agenda behind it. If the aim is to give young people a sense of right and wrong, a belief in family values and law and order, an appreciation of the spiritual dimension and so on, this is most easily done within a didactic framework. By contrast, giving students autonomy, encouraging them to work in groups and to use teachers as resources all foster independent thinking and a tendency to question received wisdom.

Who don't we trust in the latter? Are we afraid that young people will reject all that we tell them and all that we hold dear? Are we afraid of the questions we might have to answer? Are we afraid that a generation brought up to think for itself will inevitably come up with the wrong answers?

And where does the call for traditional methods leave GNVQ, let alone GNVQ Part 1? There has to be some didactic teaching on these courses, but it must give students the tools to control their own learning and do their own research. These students will be the first to spot propaganda disguised as fact. Their course, as with most A-level courses, is designed to teach them how to think, not what to think.

We can all agree that basic skills are vital passports to intellectual development and adult competence. But employers want more than this. They want a flexible workforce, able to work in teams, to show initiative, and to be able to do more than merely follow instructions.

Those who have power over what goes on in schools and colleges should concentrate on their aims and objectives. The process of delivering the objectives should be in the hands of teachers and their heads and principals. It's a simple matter of governance and management, really.

Anne Smith is the principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today