No wonder the children are still bored

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
I have been away from the education scene for the past seven years. Time to refresh the memory and dust off some old files and books. I find one file on polytechnics stuffed with earnest articles by people variously called "directors" and "provosts" extolling the distinctive virtues of their institutions and assuring the world that they would never wish to be confused with universities. I find a second file marked "equality", another subject not much talked about nowadays.

As for the file on "progressive education" - away with such childish things. The fat file on corporal punishment was heading for the dustbin too until Gillian Shephard and an assortment of bloodthirsty Tory backbenchers put it back on the agenda. Surely I shall not need once more to wade through those interminable and depressing dossiers compiled by STOPP ("Boy's head smashed against glass panel"; "11-year-old girl walloped across face"; "boy beaten with cricket bat".) I find that my file on "vouchers", by contrast, is rather thin. For years interest in this subject was confined to slightly crazed young men from think-tanks. At intervals - roughly every three years - an education minister ordered civil servants to examine its merits. They produced I think the same report each time: the idea was in the late Lord Joseph's famous description, intellectually attractive but it was utterly unworkable. Now vouchers are a reality for, of all things, the pre-school sector.

Some things however don't change. The cast list of the main teachers' union spokesmen for example is identical to what it was seven years ago. Mr de Gruchy is still in a lather of indignation about the naughtiness of children; Mr Hart still warns gravely of unspecified disaster unless we all listen more carefully to headteachers; Mr Smith still seems to regard everything with mild amusement; Mr McAvoy's jowls still quiver at any mention of testing, appraisal or standards.

Their main preoccupation - outmanoeuvring each other - is also unchanged. One is reminded of Churchill's comment on the insolubility of the Irish question after the First World War. "The mode and thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, have all encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world, but, as the waters fall, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again." Every so often - the test boycott of 1993 was an example - a single issue brings the unions together for a few weeks. Then the antique quarrels resume.

And that brings me to the most curious aspect of the current educational scene: that children seem to have been pushed to the margins. By that I do not simply mean that we have lost child-centred education as that term was used in the 1960s. Rather I mean that the time and energy spent directly on children and their work seems rather less than it was say a decade ago. Somehow, amid all the key stages, the inspections, the school improvements, the policies for everything from asthma to Zen Buddhism, the short- and medium-term lesson plans, the individual child has been forgotten. Teachers, by all accounts, work harder than they ever did. But how much of their effort is directed towards children's needs as opposed to those of school management or of the impending visitors from the Office for Standards in Education? Or, put more crudely, how often does the head's demand for a lesson plan take priority over marking a child's work?

The conventional answer is that there is no conflict: good management improves the quality of education. If teachers keep proper records; if the curriculum has clear goals and if resources are allocated methodically, the children are bound to benefit. Whether or not teachers spend as much time with children - and remember the Leicester University study in the late 1970s which showed that the average primary child was listening or talking to the teacher for only 40 minutes a day - that time will be used more effectively. The child gets more from a teacher who talks for five minutes with some purpose than from one who chatters idly for 10 minutes.

Seven years ago I would have agreed with all that. Now I have experienced a quasi-management position for myself I am not so sure. I discovered as a newspaper editor how easy it was to make the balancing of budgets, the smooth conduct of meetings, the prompt despatch of memos into the main focus of my working day and to forget that what I was really there for was to inspire journalists into producing a newspaper that people wanted to read.

Good newspapers need a touch of anarchy; the articles and features that readers remember are the ones they didn't expect. I suspect the same is true of schools; the lessons that children remember (or the "interactions" in the jargon) are the ones that stray off the curriculum and have nothing whatever to do with the maths policy or the English policy over which working parties have laboured into the night.

The language of current debate - and particularly that used in inspectors' reports - often seems calculated to turn teachers into dull conformists. For example we are frequently told that a proportion of lessons - say 20 per cent - is "unsatisfactory", as though this were a cause for alarm. I am never clear whether we are supposed to understand that one in five teachers is below par or whether we should conclude that each teacher misses the mark in one in five lessons.

If the latter, I am not at all surprised. Are more than four in five Government decisions satisfactory? Does Mr Woodhead find when he dines out that more than four in five restaurant meals are satisfactory? Certainly I found when I was an editor that more than one in five of the articles I commissioned were unsatisfactory. I would have thought it odd had it been otherwise because I encouraged journalists to take risks.

And that seems to me the nub of it. After seven years during which I understood that ministers, officials, inspectors and teachers had been engaged in a mighty scheme to revitalise the nation's schools, I return to find that everybody is aspiring to be - well, satisfactory. No wonder the children are still bored.

Peter Wilby was an education correspondent from 1972-1989, and most recently editor of The Independent on Sunday

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