Shephard accentuates the negative

31st May 1996 at 01:00
I have gone right off Gillian Shephard. When it is a matter of political survival, the gloves come off. Forget the "charm offensive", and the "let's be nice to teachers" resolutions. I have been watching her face grow harder, greyer and flintier as more and more twaddle passes her lips in the interests of propping up John Major and coping with the loony Right.

I thought she was better than that. After the bleak years of Kenneth Baker, Kenneth Clarke and John Patten, there was a hope that this education secretary would give the teaching profession fair treatment. But when political futures are at stake, certain things go out of the window. Whoooosh! Goodbye to the smile and the warmth. Swishhhh! That was a few scruples and principles disappearing into the ether. Crash! There goes what little is left of the truth nowadays, shattering the window beyond repair.

The report on standards of reading in three London boroughs was presented to the press the week before last as an indictment of progressive teaching. This was Gillian Shephard repeating the interminable litany of the Right, which she knows is tosh. Back in the good old days, the story goes, there was a Golden Age. Children sat in large classes, and teachers told them the facts. As a result, they could all spell every word in the dictionary, knew all their tables up to a billion times a billion, and could recite every cape and bay from Southend to Cape Squinxx on the planet Pluto.

The truth of the matter is that this l9th-century style of education produced an ignorant peasantry, unknowing about science and many other aspects of life, and hating school with a deep intensity. Even the brightest did not achieve as brilliantly as the right wing would have us believe. The D-streamers in grammar schools were rubbished and, like John Major, often quit before A-level, even though they were among the cleverest in their area. Less than 10 per cent of the population went on to higher education. Nowadays, their equivalents, alongside thousands of others who would have failed the 11-plus, are in that third of the population that goes to university.

After a thousand French lessons up to O-level, our brightest pupils would eventually come face to face with a customs officer in Calais, asking them in French if they had anything to declare. Most were incapable of replying much beyond "Il pleut", or "La plume de ma tante est sur la table". How many ended up paying customs duty on their Aunty Edna's Biro is not recorded.

So are teachers "trendies" who do not care about children learning? Not according to the much-altered first draft of the report on reading standards in three boroughs. In one of the passages that was later deleted, inspectors originally wrote: "Overwhelmingly, the teachers involved in this survey present themselves as pragmatic, non-doctrinaire people who want to have at their disposal the highest possible repertoire of skills and knowledge about teaching reading." Not exactly a gang of raving, off-the-wall Sixties hippies.

It was alarming to see the alterations that appeared in the report and the spin that this gave towards the negative. A statement that "the quality of teaching of reading was satisfactory or better in approximately two-thirds of the lessons observed in Year 2" became "in just one-third of these the quality of teaching was unsatisfactory or poor".

It all made me wonder how you could reconceive the history of the world if you pursued the same line. Take our great 20th-century hero Winston Churchill. On the "accentuate the negative" principle, people could say that he lost the first third of the war. Churchill, the man who ran away from Dunkirk? I think there are better things to remember him by.

Then there is our 1966 not-so-great game in the football World Cup in 1966. England gave away a silly first goal, and then allowed Germany to equalise through bad marking in the last minute of ordinary time. The score? Oh yes, we won 4-2. But that confirms, of course, that, like teachers, we were one- third bad, rather than two-thirds good.

The arts are no better. Culture is a huge flop if you take the Gillian Shephard view of life. Why did Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? I get a stiff neck every time I go in there. And have you listened to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony lately? I've watched the orchestra - and some of them do nothing for about a third of the time. They just sit there nursing their instruments. Why did Beethoven write only nine symphonies anyway? That is barely one every four years of his adult life. What was the lazy beggar up to?

We must aim for the highest levels of achievement for all pupils, especially those who desperately need a flying start in an important field like literacy. Sadly, the inspectors did see some poor teaching. As in other professions, not every teacher is ultra-competent.

It is not "progressivism", however that may be interpreted, that is at fault. I have watched and analysed hundreds of lessons and seen good and bad teaching of all kinds. The simple recipe "progressive equals bad, traditional equals good" is bunk. Someone droning on purveying inaccurate "facts" is a "bad trad". A teacher who lets children do whatever they want, whether or not they learn anything, is not a progressive teacher, but a bad teacher.

Over the next few months, as the general election draws nearer, Gillian Shephard will be under pressure from John Major and the loony Right to hammer teachers. It is an easy headline to earn. Some politicians believe that the public welcomes this scourging of their children's teachers, but my impression is that many parents do not like to see teachers done over ruthlessly. Perhaps she will play it only one-third dirty.

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