Subject to scrutiny

10th March 1995 at 00:00
Reforms have concentrated on what is taught; Jim Rose argues that the post-Dearing agenda must concentrate on quality of teaching. The Oscar-nominated film The Madness of King George III had to be retitled The Madness of King George in case the American audiences thought they had missed parts I and II. Over here we often seem to be divided by a common language in the discussion of primary education. Terms such as "child-centred", "progressive", "real books" and "whole-class teaching" continue to fuel much heated debate.

It is obvious, though nevertheless serious, that these terms and the debate they provoke all fall within the "how-to-teach" rather than the "what-to-teach" side of the balance that has to be struck if we are to achieve higher standards of primary education. What is also obvious is that the educational reforms of recent years have largely legislated for the "what", but policy makers have quite deliberately left the "how" to the professional judgment of the teacher.

The extent to which that judgment is informed - for example, by the findings of inspection about teaching quality and a reliable assessment of pupil performance, in order to decide which teaching methods and forms of classroom organisation help pupils to make the greatest possible progress - is itself a matter for debate.

Arguably, what the reforms have done is to focus far more attention than ever before on pupils' progress and achievements - on the outcomes of primary education. Ideologies of any kind can no longer masquerade as "good primary practice" in the absence of clear evidence of progress towards attainment targets commensurate with the pupils' developing abilities. For primary teachers, the greatly increased attention that the reforms have brought to the effectiveness of their teaching may be discomfiting to say the least. It has, however, revealed the crucial importance of their highly demanding role and the very impressive commitment that they have brought to implementing such major reforms as the national curriculum and its assessment.

The post-Dearing national curriculum and its assessment have been hard-won. Those early, difficult, "quarts-into-pint-pots" problems of making the whole curriculum manageable, particularly for primary schools, have been addressed. We now have not only a map of progression for what should be taught, we also have, at last, a set of national expectations for what children should know, understand and be able to do at each key stage of compulsory education. The national curriculum provides a minimum entitlement to education for all children within which primary schools must give priority to securing basic learning, especially in literacy and numeracy.

The hard, and hardly surprising, message from the Office for Standards in Education, however, is that standards will only rise if improvements in teaching quality go hand in hand with improvements in the content of the curriculum. That is the judgment which concludes OFSTED's discussion paper, Primary Matters (1984). It is a major theme of the annual report by Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, to the Secretary of State, and was taken up vigorously by Mr Woodhead in his lecture at the Royal Society of Arts earlier this year.

Such judgments are not made lightly. They stem from inspection findings drawn from a greater number of lesson observations than has ever been available to HMI, including more full inspections of primary schools by HMI in the course of a year than ever before.

The picture of standards which emerges from inspections over the 1993-94 school year is all too familiar. HMI has been reporting that around 30 per cent of lessons are unsatisfactory or poor since our annual reports began in the late 1980s. OFSTED has a responsibility to do more than parrot, year in and year out, the same tedious statistics. We have to be as clear as possible about the factors underlying these statistics, to ask why they are as they are and what should be done to improve weaknesses.

Given the findings of inspection and of a great deal of research such as that which informed the 1991 discussion paper Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice, it is indefensible to suggest that there is no evidence that anything is wrong with the quality of teaching and the way things are done in a significant number of primary classrooms, or that background factors outside the teacher's control are always the obstacle to higher standards. It is equally indefensible, of course, not to acknowledge that the majority of work in primary schools is sound or better, and foolish to overlook the potential of exemplary practice in helping "the rest to reach the standards of the best".

The good news is that we are beginning to see a modest improvement in key stage 1 - associated, among other things, with greater attention to planning for progression and with the growing expertise of teachers in assessing pupils' performance. At the same time we must treat seriously the worrying findings that more than a quarter of lessons in key stage 2 were unsatisfactory or poor - a greater proportion than in any other key stage - and, most importantly, that weak teaching skills characterised a very large majority of those lessons.

What was it about the teaching of those "below-the-line" lessons that stood in the way of pupils marking better progress and reaching higher standards? Three factors seem to be more prevalent than others. First, in some lessons the pupils received very little direct teaching. This was because either the teachers were preoccupied with controlling too many group activities at once, or they pursued a programme of individual work that was self-defeating because teaching time available to each pupil was insufficient. In both cases the high work rate of the teachers often stood in sharp contrast to the low work rate of the pupils.

Second, the assessment of the pupils' capabilities left much to be desired. The pupils rarely received the critical and supportive "feedback" and "feed-forward" they needed and were left unsure ofwhat they had to do in order to improve.

Third, the teachers' subject knowledge was not sufficient to match the developing abilities of the pupils. This last factor was more apparent in key stage 2 where it is self-evident that subject demands on the class teacher are much greater than elsewhere. The lack of expertise had far-reaching effects: it weakened planning for progression; limited the explanations, questions and instructions offered by the teacher; and, of course, reduced the quality of the teacher's assessment of pupil performance.

These problems pre-date the national curriculum and its assessment, which have simply thrown them into sharper relief. Indeed, the promise of the national curriculum is that it is not part of those perennial problems but the means of helping to solve them. The more familiar primary teachers become with the content of the national curriculum, the better they are likely to become at teaching and assessing it, as we are seeing in key stage 1. So much the better if their teaching can be strengthened by good teaching materials to help - especially, but not only, with the demands of key stage 2.

It is unrealistic, not to say unfair, to expect primary teachers suddenly to teach unfamiliar material well. The introduction of science into primary schools, however, is a good example of the willingness of many to tackle, with commendable success, a subject for which they were largely untrained. Might we expect much the same thing to happen with other relatively new areas of work such as technology? Or is it more likely, particularly in key stage 2, that we have reached the point where the class teacher system will have to be modified to bring about a better mix of generalist and specialist teaching and more focused teaching involving the whole class?

The structural diversity of our primary schools gives rise to conditions which will markedly influence that mix. As we know, the size of a small school containing a wide age range of pupils can be about the same as that of a single class of one year group in a larger school which has much greater scope for providing more specialist teaching.

All of which suggests that questions about the mix and match of methods, and ways of organising teaching groups need to be addressed by the teaching team in every school. In other words, it is for each school to carry out an audit of the expertise of its teachers to determine how, and how far, the teachers might deploy that expertise, not just within their own class but within the school as a whole and to decide how to make good any serious curricular gaps that cannot be bridged from within their team.

None of which means primary schools should be totally inward-looking. Far from it. Schools need to be aware of what works well elsewhere and be willing to respond urgently to evidence of underachievement. The findings of inspection can help to raise that awareness, pinpoint underachievement and assist schools to fulfil their very important responsibility for keeping their teaching methods under constant review.

Jim Rose is director of inspection at the Office for Standards in Education.

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