Let's hear it for brave Clackmannan

27th November 1998 at 00:00
Hands up all the prophets of doom who said that an authority the size of Scotland's smallest was educationally unviable. Parents and schools throughout Scotland must be at least intrigued, and at best cautiously excited by the extraordinary first results of the Clackmannanshire early literacy initiative.

Tiny Clackmannan finds itself playing David to the Goliath which is Scotland's educational establishment.

Tribute must be paid to the courageous councillors who agreed to try the pioneering phonics system which appears to be revolutionising across-the-board achievement in Primary 1. Clackmannan has shown itself brave to fly in the face of orthodox thinking, and to be willing to break powerful professional taboos in an effort to find methods which actually deliver for children.

Results so far appear remarkable, "potentially of major national significance", says director Keir Bloomer. Just weeks into primary school and already writing; two years' reading progress in that first school year; failure, even among the disadvantaged, almost completely absent. All that and the daily prescribed lesson is alleged to be thoroughly enjoyable for tinies.

Tribute should also be paid to the openness to change shown by participating teachers across the county. They are of course flying in the face of prevalent teacher training culture and all they have grown up with, for this scheme challenges received wisdom head on. Phonics, whole class teaching and less emphasis on child-centred discovery are the flavour.

The pace at which new sounds and letters are introduced is fast. In a few weeks little children are confidently and happily making up words. Let us not underestimate how hard it is for teachers, the front-line troops, to admit even to themselves in the face of the evidence in front of them that here indeed is a better way.

No easy demand, for teachers have lived and breathed "child-centred" education all their professional lives. Beliefs and attitudes are formed by college training and published research advocating informal and individual approaches to early education.

Nevertheless, according to press reports, teacher after teacher involved in these pilots freely admitted that their earlier beliefs had been totally challenged by the trials.

The Clackmannanshire project already has the initial warm endorsement of the Secretary of State, for even in Scotland the ruling political approach is pragmatic. Early reading confidence is a prize devoutly to be sought - seen as the golden key to learning success and the best weapon around to counter disaffection, failure and education drop-out.

It will be fascinating to see which authority - or perhaps even which individual school - elsewhere in Scotland will have the courage to break with the serried ranks of orthodoxy and set up its own pilot project along Clackmannanshire lines.

Many councils are already paying attention to early intervention in deprived areas and the Clackmannan project could fit well with other initiatives. Start-up costs are low. No extra teachers or classroom assistants are required: just the purchase of magnetic boards and two training days per teacher. The greater challenge actually lies in being willing to "do a Clackmannan", to stand up to vested interests and truculent unions and have a go.

Teachers' unions too should open their minds to reform, as also with the Government's current proposals for substantial salary increases in return for modernisation of pay and conditions. High-calibre graduates will not be attracted into teaching by an anachronistic system which honours length of service above quality.

They will however be attracted by a profession which shows flexibility towards modernisation and a willingness to put children first.

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