Politicians join whole-class army
In his most public pronouncement so far on the vexed question of teaching methods, Mr Woodhead told BBC's Panorama programme this week that the lack of whole-class methods is a key element in Britain's failure to match the educational progress of the Far East.
Class teaching he said, should take up nearly two thirds of lesson time in mathematics and an average of half the time in most other subjects. Figures from the Office for Standards in Education indicate that currently only a quarter of teaching in English primary schools is directed at the whole class.
Although likely to be opposed by many teachers, Mr Woodhead's assertions will not prove politically controversial, as the main parties attempt to out-do each other in pressing for rigorous standards.
Panorama showed Labour education spokesman David Blunkett visiting a whole-class teaching experiment in the east London borough of Barking and Dagenham. This week it was the turn of Education Secretary Gillian Shephard to look around the same project, which was described in the TES Maths Extra, March 15.
"In a subject like mathematics it makes very good sense for a majority of the teaching time to be used in whole-class teaching," Mr Woodhead said on the programme. "If you want me to put a figure on it, I would say that we're talking about 60 per cent or so at least. Maybe more."
He also advocated whole-class methods in other subjects: "The overall balance between whole-class teaching and individual teaching in our primary schools across the country, I think we should move towards a 5050 split (sic). "
However, he told The TES on Wednesday that he was "reluctant to put a blanket figure" on the amount of whole-class teaching appropriate for other subjects, "but it's clear that to have three-quarters of the children working alone in groups is neither satisfactory nor sensible".
At the heart of the Panorama programme was an academic review of mathematics research commissioned by the Office for Standards in Education and written by Professor David Reynolds from the University of Newcastle (Reynolds on Panorama, page 21).
This work, which looks at international comparisons of maths teaching, has not yet been published. But extracts shown in the programme place England and Wales joint 11th in world rankings along with Scotland and Ireland. The report says that, although faring well in terms of statistics and data-handling, British pupils fall down on the key mathematical elements of arithmetic and number work. "English educationists now need to look beyond their own geographical boundaries to see why it is that other countries may be doing better than we do," said the report.
Although he ruled out regulations to enforce specific teaching methods, Mr Woodhead was clear that there are "significant problems" in British maths teaching and that poor techniques are partly to blame. Lessons directed at the whole class are, he said, a key factor in the strong mathematical performance of Pacific Rim countries such as Taiwan and Korea.
"I am telling teachers that in other countries pupils are achieving more in mathematics. I am saying that the characteristic of teaching in these other countries is whole-class teaching. I am saying to every primary teacher in the country that they must look long and hard at that evidence and come to the professional conclusions that they personally feel are right for their children."
Although Mr Woodhead's television performance was notably measured - he refused to condemn the liberal approach of the 1968 Plowden Report despite repeated invitations - it will still irritate some academics who have already pointed out that there is no evidential base for asserting that any specific percentage (in this case 60) of lessons should be aimed at the whole class. Moreover, the evidence shown from Taiwan was to do with maths and science and may not necessarily encourage whole-class teaching in other subjects.
Speaking on the programme, the former OFSTED official Colin Richards says that international comparisons cannot provide this sort of easy educational solution. "I think it is invalid to see one aspect of a different education system and assume that is the key to whatever progress or otherwise they appear to be making."
Mr Richards, who was specialist adviser for primary education until March this year, warns that attempts to prescribe teaching methods as well as teaching content are likely to turn primary schools into "dull, arid places".
The programme also visited Barking and Dagenham, where six schools teach maths along continental lines - an initiative about to expand across the borough. It involves all pupils facing the front but, crucially, relies on intelligent questioning from the teacher. Leader, page 20.