A mixture of traditional and modern methods is helping Ulster keep its place at the top, Paul McGill reports. England is inclined to change for the sake of it and to follow fashions," said Peter McGrattan, maths adviser in the South Eastern Education and Library Board. "We are more canny in Northern Ireland. We monitor what is happening there, import what is good and avoid what is terrible."
This might explain why the Assessment of Performance Unit's major review of standards throughout the 1980s showed that Ulster primary pupils did better in maths than their colleagues in England and Wales, despite worse social deprivation and larger classes.
Recent unpublished evidence from pilot tests shows that many more Northern Irish 11-year olds are gaining levels four and five than in England and Wales.
Conventional wisdom is that high standards are due to the retention of traditional teaching methods in the Province. One senior educationist said: "We have always been very traditional, perhaps with too much emphasis on number work. Teachers teach subjects in primary schools, not topics. We do the basics and then we do the frills. What England wants to go back to, we have never left."
Peter McGrattan, who also has experience of the English system, said:"I was appalled at some of the reactions of teachers, for example in giving no encouragement to pupils to learn tables. They are still pushing understanding but not learning by heart. If you do not have this you do not have the building blocks."
On the surface it appears that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead, ministers and assorted critics are right to push for more traditional methods in England to raise standards. But deeper scrutiny suggests several factors to explain Northern Ireland's superior performance.
One difference is that Northern Ireland has not had a war of slogans, whether about phonics in English, dates in history or teaching methods. Debate has been about what actually happens in the classrooms. While teachers have been militant over assessment, there has been substantial consensus over the curriculum.
Northern Ireland's equivalent of the national curriculum was built on more solid foundations, dating from the primary guidelines issued by the Northern Ireland Council for Educational Development in 1984. These gave schools an opportunity to develop study programmes, with important support from seconded field officers. With the advent of the new curriculum, advisory services in the five education and library boards continued to give active support to schools. But in England local authority advisory services were run down just when they were most needed by teachers struggling with major changes.
Another factor is the quality of teachers. Northern Ireland's training institutions have always had a surplus of highly-qualified applicants.
Northern Ireland primary schools tend to focus on subjects rather than topics, but the idea that teaching is solidly traditional is largely mythical. "We have a better balance of content and process, we want pupils to learn the tables after they understand them," said Peter McGrattan. "We have a good balance of understanding concepts and applying them. In England they do not do enough to consolidate understanding through practice."
George Whitten, maths adviser in the Belfast Board, said Northern Ireland mixes traditional and modern methods. "We do not have people who stick rigidly to one or the other. Some tasks are better taught from the front of the class and some are not. Nobody has gone overboard; we have kept our feet on the ground."
The South Eastern Board's guidance document on maths noted that there will always be a need for exposition by the teacher but that care must be taken.
"It should encourage initiative rather than being so explicit that pupils become passive. Pupils' responses need to be valued. This should be equally true whether the teacher is talking to a large class, a group or individuals, " it added. It referred to the statement in the 1981 Cockcroft report that a class can have a seven-year spread of ability. "Each pupil's needs cannot be catered for effectively if every topic is taught to the whole class at the same time, using a single approach with no variation of pace," said the document.
Ironically, in view of the Office for Standards in Education's new enthusiasm for traditional methods, the most powerful arguments against them lie in a recent report by the Northern Ireland inspectorate on the teaching of English, maths and science. It suggested that it is weaker teachers who rely too much on whole-class teaching in maths, just as they over-use phonics in teaching reading and factual information in science.
The report praised the quality of maths teaching as generally sound or better, but did not suggest that standards are high across the board. Weaknesses were identified particularly in mathematical processes and mental calculation.
Children often benefited from teachers' clear exposition but got insufficient opportunity to explore their own ideas or to engage in investigative activities, it said.
In a minority of lessons, almost all the work was organised for the whole class and all pupils did the same tasks, but this did not meet the needs of all pupils, as it was too easy for able children and too hard for slower learners. On the issue of subjects versus topics, the report said there was a growing awareness of the potential of using current topics and classroom experience to promote some aspects of maths, but there is scope for developing this further.
The report castigated an over-emphasis on number which reflected the baleful influence of selection for grammar schools, which led to "an excessive amount of time being spent on repetitive tasks and tests".
The message of the report was that full-blown traditional methods are the refuge of the weaker teacher, who fails to develop pupils fully because of excessive teaching from the front, too much number at the expense of processes and too little topic work.