Online for state control?

22nd December 2000 at 00:00
Government teaching materials are in your school and on the Web. Is this a trend to welcome or fear, asks Diana Hinds

ifteen years ago, the idea that central government would distribute identical teaching materials to every school was unthinkable. Teachers took it for granted that they were free to choose their own materials according to their pupils' needs. With the introduction of the national curriculum in 1989, however, schools moved towards a common teaching programme, with publishers adapting materials to suit the new requirements.

In the past few years, central government has stepped in for the first time with the launch of the national literacy strategy, providing every school with documents detailing how the new strategy should be taught. The teaching framework has been followed by materials, such as Grammar for Writing and Progression in Phonics, sent to every school. Government websites and leaflets now provide ideas for teaching and homework alongside information about policy for teachers and parents.

The Department for Education and Employment is now proposing a quality mark to give guidance to schools about online digital learning services. Services that meet the criteria will be awarded a National Grid for Learning badge.

Another significant and controversial development is the BBC's pound;135 million proposal to create a digital curriculum, putting educational resources for the entire national curriculum online, funded by the licence fee. The plan is awaiting approval from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

"Many primary teachers do worry about having that flexibility in terms of choosing materials they want to use," says Olwyn Gunn, of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. "They do regret the element of instruction by the Government, and many feel it takes away the imaginative, exciting aspect of teaching."

"The Government is trying to be helpful in providing teaching materials, and it seems churlish to resist them," says Trevor Millum, at the National Association for the Teaching of English. "But there is a worrying drift towards a rather dictatorial model, with materials being centrally provided, which is not in the tradition of English education. There are questions to be asked about the direction in which things are going, which points to ess choice for teachers rather than more. If you have a centralised system of education, what happens if the government is not so benign? Where are the checks and balances then?" John Davies, director of the Educational Publishers' Council, concedes that, despite the centralising principles of the national literacy strategy, publishers actually did quite well out of its introduction, providing the accompanying range of texts which schools were given government money to choose and buy. But he has serious concerns about any form of quality mark for teaching materials, "because it has a prescriptive element in it". The EPC has always preferred to work with listed criteria.

"With the central direction of the curriculum and the literacy strategy, the issue of central control comes up frequently: we have to be vigilant," John Davies says.

Without a system of quality marks, it is very time-consuming to assess electronic resources. "It is relatively easy to pick up a textbook, flick through it and get an idea of its potential," says Dominic Savage, director general of the British Educational Suppliers Association. "But with a piece of software, you might need two or three weeks to go through it, and teachers haven't got that sort of time."

But he, too, opposes the idea of quality marks, "because they function like an onoff switch; a product is good if it's got the mark, no good if it hasn't - and in education, that's never the case".

He favours a system which would make detailed assessments available on the Web, for teachers to consult before deciding to buy.

The BBC's digital curriculum plans are a major source of concern for educational publishers. The BBC insists that it does not intend to be the sole provider of digital education services, but John Davies and Dominic Savage argue that it will be very difficult for others to compete if the BBC has the advantage of providing what is effectively a free service for schools.

Teachers, however, are more sanguine. The National Union of Teachers, for instance, has broadly welcomed the BBC's "involvement" in the provision of online curriculum material. But the union wants teachers to play a substantial part in its development, and emphasises that "a bank of materials should be available which allows teachers to use their professional judgment".

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