Those long balls that turn into own-goals

4th October 1996 at 01:00
English football was ruined for over a decade by what became known as the "long ball game". For those who are not familiar with football tactics, and indeed who are wondering what on earth there is in common between education and kicking a bag of wind, now that Kenneth Clarke has moved on, let me explain.

The long ball game was the nearest equivalent that football had to a national curriculum. It was not compulsory, but virtually everybody played it, as it was the principal orthodoxy peddled on official football coaching courses.

The strategy, for want of a better word, consisted of muscular defenders picking up the ball in their own half, hoofing it miles into the air, hoping frantically it would land on the head of one of their forwards. Meanwhile, the delicate dwarfs who played in attacking positions waited patiently at the other end of the pitch, about 70 yards away. It was like cart horses lobbing chainsaws to surgeons.

More often than not a gigantic defender of the opposing side would say "Thank you very much", flatten the poor midget attacker who was making a frantic attempt to leap more than three inches off the ground, and hoist the ball 70 yards into the stratosphere on its way back to the very player who had propelled it to him in the first place.

This crude aerial ping-pong led to English teams being regularly annihilated by those foreign teams who did not actually die laughing at the unsubtle and brain-corroding nature of it all. English football is only just shaking itself loose from this dour stranglehold.

The link between our recent national football tactics and education is simple. We are now being told by Chris Woodhead that the findings of OFSTEDinspection reports will be translated into a prescribed national curriculum for the training of novice and experienced teachers. The long ball game in football was based on a similar assumption.

Some quite careful analysis of football league matches had shown that there was often a "long ball" in the five moves leading up to the scoring of a goal. I suspect there were also lots of other frequently- occurring events, like someone spitting on the floor, or breaking wind, but I digress.

The assumption was made that it was the 70-yard hoick that must have "caused" the goal. Therefore, simple conclusion: if everybody does it, they will all score goals.

So did matches end up with one team winning by 10 goals to nine? No, not really. In the event there were lots of extremely boring 0-0 draws. Opposing teams neutralised each other because the element of surprise had disappeared. What is worse, many of our footballers lost not only their inventiveness, but also their repertoire of craft skills.

It would be nice to think that school inspection reports could be neatly translated into what Chris Woodhead referred to as absolutes at a conference at which we both spoke. Unfortunately, the research into teacher effectiveness, both in Britain and the United States, has never come up with any blanket prescriptions that could remotely be referred to as absolutes without stretching the meaning of the word well beyond breaking-point.

Is it better, for example, to ask children more of what some people call "higher order questions", that is, questions requiring a reply that goes beyond the mere recall of information? Two American researchers, both of whom had analysed several research studies of teachers' questions and pupil learning, came to opposite conclusions. One decided it was, the other that it wasn't.

There was a well-intended attempt in the United States to draw up a set of "Teachers should . . ." statements. They consisted of assertions like "During reading-group instruction, teachers should give a maximal amount of brief feedback and provide fast-paced activities of the 'drill' type". However, these were voluntary for teachers, not prescribed by the Government.

Is Chris Woodhead right? Can inspection reports be turned into prescribed teaching styles? Or is this just an example of him living up to the poignant bathos of his surname? My experience of inspection reports and research findings is that it is not that simple.

The context of teaching is vital - the age, background and prior knowledge of the children, the subject or topics being taught, the time, space and materials available, the personality and expertise of the teacher. Teachers need to be able to make dozens of judicious on-the-spot decisions about what makes best sense, not consult an official omni-purpose Government handbook.

Research tends to produce general areas of interest, but with great variation in individual interpretation. For example, in the research project I am currently directing, we found, among other things, that teachers whose pupils improved most in reading made literacy important, maximised the time children spent on their task, and individualised their teaching. But they often did it in quite different ways.

The Teacher Training Agency was quoted as saying that you wouldn't want doctors to say they used "a variety of methods". Yes you would. And you certainly wouldn't want the Government telling doctors what to do.

For years the bog-standard National Health Service operation for varicose veins in the leg consisted of a series of horizontal incisions which left livid scars about an inch or more long. A surgeon I know has a better technique. He makes tiny vertical incisions which eventually leave a small number of virtually invisible white dots, much neater, though more expensive, than the "official" version.

So will the Woodhead plan go ahead? Will he of the ligneous noddle create the pedagogical equivalent of the long ball in football?

I hope simple-minded prescriptions are not introduced, but, like English football players, I wouldn't be too surprised to see a lot of balls coming from on high.

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