Primary teachers don't like making waves. This is why they've allowed themselves to be battered into submission by an array of centrally imposed initiatives

25th February 2005 at 00:00
I'd looked forward to our recent LEA conference for primary heads. One of the guest speakers was Professor Michael Barber, a man whose ideas and writings have interested me in the past. He's now a leading light in Tony Blair's "delivery unit" for public services, which I suppose should have been a warning, because by the time he'd finished I was wondering whether we inhabited the same educational planet.

Professor Barber was talking about plateaus in education. It's easy to get stuck on them, he told us, and we need to find ways to move off them. He started by showing us graphs about health and the railways; the lines on his graphs were moving steadily upwards. Waiting times in AE departments are shorter now, he said, and far more trains run on time, which was certainly news to most of us.

Then we got on to literacy standards in primary schools. More graphs, going right back to the Fifties. It seems we were stuck on a plateau in the "formal" years, and we didn't make much improvement in the Plowden child-centred decades either. But then came a new government and a literacy hour and, guess what, Professor Barber's graphs showed a dramatic improvement. It's been a real success story, he said, with teachers enthusiastically tuning and refining the strategy over the past five years.

It seems we're off the plateau at last.

We aren't really, of course. Primary teachers are dedicated, hard-working people who don't like making waves, and this is why they've allowed themselves to be battered into submission by an array of centrally imposed initiatives. In the Fifties, the children in a class learned the same thing at the same time. If you were bright and kept up, you did well. If you weren't, well, you were relegated to the B stream. Categorising children into two broad groups wasn't a great idea and the Plowden report addressed this, telling us that children are individuals and should be treated as such. Fine in theory, but a class teacher then had to devise individual learning strategies for up to 35 children.

In the leafy shires, children still made progress because school work was reinforced at home. In deprived areas, where most children needed highly structured learning, a Plowden classroom often resembled a wet playtime, with teachers tearing their hair out and children making little progress.

There was no middle road; teachers were pressured into teaching "informally", and if you dared have a reading scheme in your classroom or asked children to learn their tables, you could kiss promotion goodbye.

Children struggled, and often left primary school with only the most basic of skills. The government became worried and picked up its sledgehammer, imposing a national curriculum so unwieldy it was impossible to teach at first. And then came the literacy hour, which was adapted by teachers only because it wasn't properly thought through in the first place.

Professor Barber's final graph indicated that primary pupils who reach level 4 do well at GCSE, the implication being that driving children through level 4 using dull texts and comprehension is what primary schools are about. Fortunately, teachers can still find ways of turning dross into gold, but I'd challenge Professor Barber to find more than a handful of children's authors who think the literacy strategy is the way to produce good writers, or to get off the plateau we're still stuck on.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.


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