Plowden and the forgotten message

10th November 2000 at 00:00
A FEW weeks ago Lady Plowden died. Broadsheet newspapers ran lengthy obituaries while news pages drew attention to the latest research into the layout of classroom furniture under headlines like "Pupils who face the blackboard learn more".

For those of us of a certain generation Lady Plowden was identified with her 1967 report into the state of primary education in England and Wales. The earlier Primary Memorandum in Scotland covered similar ground but due to London-dominated media and the availability of a titled lady, it was the name of Plowden which came to symbolise the development of primary education for 20 years until the Thatcher administration invented its antidote in the shape of the national curriculum and 5-14.

It is difficult to remember the grainy black and white world of the fifties with linoleum and coal fires. Primary children were routinely placed in classes of 50. Remote heads - many with no primary teaching experience - checked that teachers followed the syllabus, whole-class teaching made no allowance for individual differences and problems were dealt with by corporal punishment.

By P7 the curriculum had been reduced to monotonous hours of arithmetic and English exercises, relieved only by the occasional burst of Singing Together on the wireless, and all of it was done in the name of preparation for the qualifying exam which would see children selected or rejected depending on their attainments at age 11.

Plowden regarded primary education as a stage in its own right rather than a preparation for secondary school. The needs of individual children were placed at the centre of the curriculum and teachers were encouraged to experiment with new methods so that children would learn more effectively. The education climate changed for the better at a time when other long established traditions in society were beig questioned.

Although most of the present positive attitudes within primary education have come directly from the reports of the 1960s, they had a downside too. In-service training was not well developed and relied on voluntary attendance at evening or summer courses. So for the majority the reports were reduced to a variety of soundbites which they heard at second hand from heads or other colleagues.

Any form of whole-class teaching was to be abandoned, children must always sit in groups since learning is a social activity and expression should not be stifled by teaching spelling or multiplication tables or even by using lined paper. No wonder there was confusion.

Those in charge, whether in colleges or national and local government, demanded change and teachers became suspicious about carrying out undigested orders which had not been properly explained. The result was frustration and erosion of confidence as children's learning seemed to deteriorate.

The 5-14 curriculum has brought a structure to the classroom which had been lacking and moves to raise attainment should have given teachers a much needed opportunity to question their classroom practice and school policies and to identify what works best, but some ideas have become so ingrained that it is difficult to take an objective look.

Whole-class teaching has been given a new status, although we have to call it interactive to pretend that it is something new, and we have the latest research into the organisation of classroom furniture telling us what any thoughtful teacher has already worked out.

More than 30 years after Plowden we are still trying to learn to respect our teachers and their experience. We need to be challenged by new thinking but innovation is only successful when its value is clearly seen by those who are expected to carry it out.

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