Nostalgia versus prejudice

21st June 1996 at 01:00
Andrew Rowe argues that teachers should be entrusted to teach, and pupils should be allowed to escape schools that fail them.

It's hard to believe but it's true. The great debate about educational standards shows all the signs of reverting to another exercise in nostalgia versus prejudice in which the principal losers will be, as always, the children. Could we, for once, remember that simply having been at school is not sufficient authority for yet again pulling up by the roots the entire education system? It would make a refreshing change.

There are two main elements in the present situation. First, large numbers of the nation's children are leaving school unable to read, write or figure to a standard which gives them any chance of finding or keeping a job in the modern world. And this in spite of having been forced under sanction of the criminal law to attend for a minimum of 11 years. At the same time, many of them will have such a poor opinion of themselves that they will find it hard to function effectively as parents in their turn. We are sowing a harvest which will cost us dear to reap.

These children have been robbed more comprehensively than the people whom they may well burgle later on. They have absolutely no chance of claiming for their loss against any insurance company, nor of gaining compensation from the state that carried out the theft. Our belated understanding of this has led to the present acceleration in efforts to improve the system.

Second, we must recognise that no two teachers are the same. One will achieve remarkable results with chalk and talk; another with small group, project-based teaching. My years as a teacher showed me that it is a rare individual indeed who interacts equally well with every child in the class. The teacher who inspires one child will be a complete turn-off for another.

The same is true for subjects. Yet the politicians and theorists leading the current debate on standards seem hellbent on trying once again to proscribe one form of teaching in favour of some other.

They must be stopped. We now have in place the beginnings of a system for demonstrating which schools are achieving acceptable results and which are not. It is necessary to ensure that those schools which are failing to deliver appropriate results are asked to explain why.

There may be perfectly good reasons for it. The mix of children in the school may properly call for additional resources if they are to have a chance to provide a good education and the school should have a chance to argue the case for additional help. In other cases, schools should be required to raise their standards or go out of business. How they choose to do this is a matter for the professional judgment of the teachers themselves.

Every time in the past 50 years that the Government has tried to force upon teachers some standard orthodoxy, often derived from some untried theory, we have had a disaster. Quite apart from any other consideration, the education system is so huge that by the time the last schools have begun to introduce the new system, the pundits in the Department for Education and Employment are engaged on changing the system in the first schools.

The result is confusion and demoralisation, and the fall in standards which is currently deplored.

If professionalism in teaching means anything, it must surely mean that professional teachers should be free to choose the style of teaching which suits their temperament and abilities - provided that it delivers the results. And that confidence in a teacher's abilities should be boosted in training, not crushed by an adherence to one style of teaching regardless of the qualities of the trainee.

One other element in this debate is worth consideration. If it becomes clear that a pupil is falling behind the national target standard by a significant amount and is not statemented, should there not come a time when he or she could choose to be withdrawn from school and spend the money which the state is clearly wasting on them somewhere else?

If we insist on compulsory reception of a public service we have an obligation to ensure that it is effective. If we cannot deliver an acceptable result, what right have we to insist that the citizen has to go on receiving it?

There would rapidly emerge a market-place of providers who would stand a much better chance of giving the pupils what the state regards as the bare minimum of education if they were allowed to do so.

It might be argued that the social ambience provided by the school is so important that even pupils who get nothing of academic value from the school should nevertheless continue to attend it.

I don't believe that the majority of pupils who are being let down by the curriculum education they receive obtain enough of value from the rest to compensate.

It is high time that teachers were trusted to teach and pupils were enabled to escape from schools that let them down.

Andrew Rowe is Conservative MP for Mid Kent.

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