Perhaps trendy thinkers were right all along?

5th September 1997 at 01:00
We come back from holiday and we find the world has been turned upside down. No less an authority than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development informs us that the German economy is no longer a model to be envied and copied, but rather the reverse.

The once-admirable Germans face mass unemployment and stagnation; their workforce is backward-looking and set in its ways; Ferdinand Mount, writing in The Sunday Times, finds their towns and cities almost shabby. Meanwhile, the Asian economic miracle is over: the tiger economies are apparently in dire trouble, and threaten to drag the rest of us down with them.

All this, it occurs to me, happens just as British schools are ready to absorb the lessons of German and south-east Asian success: children in serried rows, plenty of whole-class teaching, single-minded focus on task, heavy concentration on the basics of number and language, no calculators, no flights of fancy. Even as I write, Professor David Reynolds and his maths task force are no doubt considering how English children can be made to add, subtract, multiply and generally toss around decimal points with the same facility as the Taiwanese.

Now, those of us who remained steadfastly anti-Thatcher throughout the 1980s are being enjoined to re-consider. Perhaps all that economic harshness, the insistence that everyone must sink or swim in the market, the huge dimunition in trade union powers and restrictive practices, the apparent indifference to unemployment and poverty was a necessary medicine. But I wonder if there shouldn't be a little reconsideration on another matter. Were the trendies, now more or less hounded from the classroom, right all along? Will discovery learning prove the right sort of learning for the 21st century?

Schools have been taking the blame for the country's economic failures for the past 20 years. So fair's fair. If we are now doing better than Germany and France, shouldn't schools take a smidgen of credit? After all, the workforce now in place owes almost nothing to the reforms imposed since 1987; no single school-leaver has benefited from a complete education under the national curriculum. British companies are overwhelmingly staffed not by Thatcher's children, and certainly not by Baker's children, but by Plowden's children.

If British workers are proving more adaptable, more flexible than their Continental counterparts, could schools be congratulated for modifying the traditionally rigid, production-line approaches to learning? Schools, indeed, could well take credit for all sorts of other things. If British pop music and pop lyrics are so successful, could this have something to do with the creative writing and free music-making that used to go on in primary schools? If British fashion and British art are the talk of Europe, could those teachers who saved up old squeegee bottles and yoghurt pots take a bow? What about all those whizz-kids in the City of London, moving billions around the world's money markets and even now saving your pension fund from the worst effects of the decline in the Thai baht? The beneficiaries of some long-forgotten Nuffield maths lessons in the Inner London Education Authority perhaps?

Yes, yes, my tongue is well inside my cheek. But I have two deadly serious points. First, we still don't know, with any certainty, what works in education. We seem convinced now that, for teaching reading, phonics works; 30 years ago, we were just as convinced that it didn't. Who is to say that our views won't have changed again in another 30 years? (Education isn't peculiar in this respect: think of how, in economics, Keynes has been out, in and out again in the past 70 years.) Second, we can't be sure what skills, knowledge and attitudes we shall need from the workforce in the future.

The common sense answer is to allow diversity; let many flowers bloom and some of them will win export orders. Yet we are moving towards an education system that will be more prescriptive than at any time since the 19th century. We used to pity the French, whose minister of education could look at his watch in Paris and know what every child from Calais to Cannes was learning at that moment; now, David Blunkett, in London, will have a pretty good idea of when every primary school child has reached, say, the third phase of the literacy hour.Perhaps his dog can be trained to bark as the hour begins and ends.

The insistence on lesson planning, work schemes, whole-school policies and all the rest of it is turning the classroom teacher into little more than a vehicle for other people's ideas and priorities. Read The TES series My Best Teacher and see how often the creative people, particularly, remember the unorthdox, individualistic approach: the English teacher, for example, who inspired Mark Stephenson (now a conductor) by bringing in David Bowie record sleeves and studying the lyrics from Life on Mars.

The national curriculum doesn't exactly prohibit that kind of thing, I know. But the relentless focus on structured lessons and predetermined outcomes, the pressure created by tests, inspections and appraisals must discourage schools, teachers and, for that matter, pupils from taking risks.

There's no doubt that progressive education generated vast quantities of nonsense. Yet as the years go on, its underlying philosophy looks more and more to have been ahead of its time. Given the enormous growth of information technology, knowing how to sort, handle and search data does look more important than learning things by rote. Given the growth of the entertainment media, creativity and spontaneity do look more important than discipline and method.

My favourite passage from the Plowden Report, the one that seems best to sum up its Rousseau-esque sentimentality about childhood and learning was under the heading Flexibility in the Curriculum: when a class of seven-year-olds notice the birds that come to the bird table outside the classroom window, they may decide, after discussion with their teacher, to make their own aviary. They will set to with a will, and paint the birds in flight, make models of them in clay or papier mache, write stories and poems about them and look up reference books to find out more about their habits.

God forbid that any such fancies should interrupt the literacy hour. But I think we, as a nation, would be unwise to make it impossible for any teacher ever again to wander off the point for a few minutes.

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