My Brummie B-streamers were a sign of the times

10th September 2010 at 01:00
Assessment of children's ability has been a mainstay of the educational debate for as long as anyone can remember. Gerald Haigh enjoys a romp through The TES's coverage

I started teaching in 1961, in a Birmingham junior school. I had done my final teaching practice there and was well-thought of. Even so, they were taking no chances, and I was safely tucked away as class teacher of 3B - the middle stream in the third year (Year 5 in today's money). Putting me there was risk-free for the school. The A stream was coached for the 11-plus by a teacher with a track record of success, and the C stream required another sort of specialist skills. My 40 Brummie B- streamers, though - bless them - were destined for secondary modern more or less whatever I did to them.

When we discuss the 11-plus, we tend to forget how profoundly it affected primary schools. In a letter to The TES in September 1951, secondary modern head J. Kelly describes the position exactly. Selection, Mr Kelly argued, happened not at 11 but at seven, when primary children were divided into streams, headed for different destinations.

"The A stream," he went on, "known to children, parents and staff as the `scholarship class', is prepared for the selective examination with intensive drill."

This included lots of practice in the kind of intelligence test that was supposed to be practice-proof, which led to one of Mr Kelly's sec mod 11- plus failures saying: "My best subject is Intelligence."

Nobody in education was ever really happy with a one-off 11-plus exam. As far back as 1928, when secondary schools were fee-paying and it actually was a "scholarship exam", we read in a TES report of the NUT's annual conference that delegate Mr Mander called it "a monstrous system, involving cramming and pressure at an age when educational experts are at one in believing we should be free from these evils".

Mr Mander went on to point out that rigid teaching to a test produced children who passed the exam but couldn't cope at grammar school. Teachers were always aware of that, and in September 1955 a TES article on a new approach to the 11-plus in the West Riding of Yorkshire reported figures revealing that, "Each year, examples can be found of schools which send up to 50 per cent of their children to grammar schools, and of these a large number fail to complete the courses. Cramming in some cases is overt."

A West Riding official goes on in the same article to declare, in words that speak clearly to us across 55 years: "It seems that any externally imposed test will within a very short time influence the teaching in the schools subject to it."

It was a mess, frankly, and all through the days of the tripartite system, teachers longed for something fairer. Inevitably there were experiments, of which the West Riding's new system of selection panels and teacher assessment was just one.

Selection was about trying to identify able children and, looking back through The TES archive, it is fascinating to see for how long everyone, teachers included, assumed that children could usefully be labelled with catch-all words such as "dull", "backward" and "retarded". Indeed, at college, in the late Fifties, we were taught the proper psychological definitions of these terms, the roots of which lie in a firm belief in the existence of measurable general intelligence.

So in January 1951, in a letter to The TES about the grammar school curriculum, Eric James (later Baron James of Rusholme), high master of Manchester Grammar School, writes: "It is a matter of the most profound national importance that our highest intelligence groups should receive the best training we can give them."

Underlining just how important was the concept of "normality", in the same issue an article on teaching gifted children in France is headed "The Overintelligent Child", and nearly two decades on, in July 1969, The TES had photographs of a class project on the first moon landing, including the "work of a retarded boy of 6 and a half".

That concept of intelligence as a kind of single mental muscle went with an assumption that schooling should set a steady pace, and children could either keep up or not. It is a concept precisely illustrated by a correspondent who, in July 1955 writes under the headline, "Educating the Second Rate - Pace too fast". Concluding that science textbooks are too difficult, he goes on: "I wish teachers would more often realise how dismal must be the experience of the serious ordinary student when he feels that he is always clutching at something beyond his grasp."

It is too easy, of course, to look askance at yesterday's curriculum and pedagogy, but each generation comes up with its own ideas about what makes children tick. So, in recent times, though we are less enamoured of the idea of intelligence, we are reluctant to give up on it altogether. So we have had theories of multiple intelligences, and attempts to suit classroom work to differing learning styles: the "visual, auditory, kinaesthetic" (VAK). These derive from the work of Howard Gardner, which has been explored in various TES features.

One of them, published in May 2005, opens with the story of a little boy whose desk has a card saying: "Hello. My name is Jack. I am a kinaesthetic learner." The article noted how teachers' interest in such theories had grown, and that David Miliband, then schools minister, saw Professor Gardner's work as relevant to his drive for "personalised learning". "The multiple intelligences of pupils require a repertoire of teaching strategies," Mr Miliband said. Even then, The TES noted the cynicism among some teachers about VAK, and their fear that the multiple intelligence approach could "become just as deterministic and restrictive as the old IQ test".

Mr Miliband's reference to Professor Gardner's work is evidence of how much time and energy went into defining "personalised learning" through the Noughties. According to TES writers, it was to little avail. "If you're looking for an exact definition of personalised learning, you'll have no luck," writes Steven Hastings in 2004, while in 2008, Warwick Mansell concludes: "No one, it seems, can agree on what it means."

One contribution to personalisation that does seem clear is parental engagement, and here, too, is a strong 21st-century theme. "Parents are the key to narrowing the gap between pupils who achieve and those who do not," writes former TES editor Judith Judd in November 2008, going on to describe the strategies used by individual schools to bring parents on board.

But what you learn above all from the pages of The TES is that nothing is really new, and sure enough a trip back to January 1928 finds an experiment called "Parents' Reports". It tells of a school which sent out what we would now call a parents' questionnaire covering children's health, hobbies, reading habits, signs of unhappiness and general enjoyment of school. It was a venture heartily approved of by The TES. "Much invaluable information. has been imparted," the writer notes. "The result has been that individual attention of a precision before impossible has been given. weak places in the school's administration and technique have been remedied."

In one sense, that early flirtation with parental engagement confirms what the much-missed academic and commentator Ted Wragg described in 1985 on the 75th birthday of The TES as "The Piccadilly Circus view" of education policy - "if only you wait long enough, everything will come round again".

With an apology to Ted's memory, though, I think there is more to it than that. For most of its history, The TES has reported on classrooms largely dominated by drills, textbooks and discipline. All the time, though, as anyone working in those classrooms knows, there have been those who have tried for something more creative, more stimulating.

I found it fascinating to read, for example, the thoughts of a correspondent, from October 1917, on what he calls "The Craftsman's Conscience". The writer speculates on whether, and how, the feeling of satisfaction that comes from completing a piece of practical work can be transferred to the dry, intellectual tasks of the classroom. "The handicrafts develop a kind of conscience in children which is not so much developed by intellectual work alone," he writes.

It is an appeal not for more practical work, but for work that is interesting and enjoyable. A little later, in 1928, there is praise for school trips, which are "not, in any sense, a holiday. the idea is to give a sense of realism to acquired knowledge".

As the post-war years went on, the drills and textbooks began to retreat. Through the Sixties, experiments such as Pitman's "Initial Teaching Alphabet" (ITA) came and went. Attitudes to ITA enlivened the correspondence pages of The TES, as did the debate on the "real books" approach to the teaching of reading, a method attractive to those who were emotionally committed to helping children into the pleasure of books. It was never really practical, though. In The TES in 1989, reading expert Betty Root looked back and told us what we all really knew - that the "real books" approach was fine "if you had a nation of highly competent, highly literate teachers who really knew their books, but, unfortunately this was not the case".

In those heady Sixties and early Seventies, I was teaching in the remedial department (that labelling again) of a comprehensive, telling a disbelieving maths class that their hard-won understanding of pounds, shillings and pence was about to be rendered obsolete. In July 1969, a TES book review dealt with eight textbooks on decimal currency, which by the time it arrived in February 1971 had been the subject of doomsday predictions akin to those inspired by the millennium bug.

From the mid-Seventies, through the Eighties, I was first a middle-school deputy, then a head. In many ways it was the best of times. We wrote our own curriculum, chose our own materials, and generally did our own thing. Down the corridor, a young teacher, supported by a group of enthusiastic parents, was quietly discovering just how significant our new computers were.

But the net was closing in. Along came the Conservative government's 1988 Education Reform Act, the culmination of what The TES described in October 1989 as "Two decades in search of the right line" - a 20-year campaign by the political right against declining standards linked to left-orientated progressivism in education.

So we faced up with heavy hearts to the national curriculum, national tests, league tables and, of course, the virtual death (or at least serious decline) of the middle school itself.

The late Eighties marked another watershed. In January 1985 came the first BETT show for information technology in education, heralded in the pages of The TES by a double-page colour advertisement for RM's new "Nimbus" classroom computer.

At the end of the Noughties, ICT has matured to enable children, teachers and parents within and beyond their own schools to form collaborative learning communities. That journey, though, is a story big enough to be told separately.

Gerald Haigh will write on 100 years of changes to educational technology in `The TES Magazine' this November.

For more on the TES centenary, please visit:


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