Star-gazers need shift in nautical thinking

14th January 2000 at 00:00
WHEN I began teaching in the Eighties I was told that the average award for English at 16 was a grade 4 CSE - the equivalent of an F at GCSE and, roughly speaking, a Level 4 in the national curriculum. That was 15 years ago. Now over 50 per cent gain a grade C and just over 80 per cent a grade D, which is the high end of a level 6. Last year's Office for Standards in Education reports showed that nearly three-quarters of English teachers were good, very good or excellent and that a mere 1.3 per cent were deemed unsatisfactory.

Now you'd think this would be cause for celebration. Here is a group of teachers who, on all the evidence dreamed up by this and the last government, are good at their job. They know what they are doing and they produce the results. But, apparently not.

According to Mr Blunkett at last week's North of England conference pupils will now have to take English tests in each year of key stage 3 and literacy guidelines, courtesy of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, will be published for teachers to follow. Maths colleagues are to be subjected to the same regime.

There is, of course, no room for complacency. Teachers should always reflect on their practice and consider new ways of improving. But you do have to begin to ask what it is, exactly, that the profession has to do to convince any government that they are good enough to be trusted.

Like many over the Christmas holidays, I watched Longitude, having already seen the excellent Horizon programme on the same subject. The film, and the book on which it is based, chart the struggles of the watchmaker John Harrison in convincing the Board of Longitude at the Royal Society, that keeping time, rather than watching the stars, was the only way for sailors to navigate the oceans. Year after year he produced painstakingly accurate evidence that his method worked, only to be asked to jump through morehoops to make the same point.

With the benefit of hindsight it seems incredible that anyone could have clung so long to the idea that star-gazing was a more reliable means of finding one's way.

The film was certainly unsympathetic to the Royal Society's position and yet these astronomers were not fools. They knew that reading the stars could still help. Astronomy, physics and mathematics were rapidly-expanding fields. Indeed, we owe much to the systematic work of these late-17th and early-18th century scientists. Their difficulty was that they were looking in the wrong place to find the answer to the particular problem posed. To understand Harrison's solution would have required a complete paradigm shift.

So it was that they overlooked the reports of sailors because they were deemed too sympathetic, even though their lives, far more than the board members', depended on Harrison being right. And they dismissed Harrison's own calculations, because he was not a trained astronomer. The years were not entirely wasted. Throughout this period Harrison refined and honed his watches, on occasion deliberately ignoring stipulations that would have hastened a resolution because it would have meant compromising the integrity of his invention.

Perhaps like the Board of Longitude, politicians cannot be blamed entirely for their intransigence. They are subtle people, who know how to do some things very well - spin policies and, in the case of this Government, win votes. Indeed, their ideas often contain much insight. But they too need a paradigm shift; they need to look elsewhere for solutions if we are genuinely to continue raising standards.

Education will never be devoid of politics, nor should it be. This is no plea for neutrality. It is, however, a request for politicians to pause for just a moment and wonder whether or not someone else might have the right answer.

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