We're a long way down the slippery slope

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Have you ever wondered what teaching will be like in the future? Then stand aside and let Gillian Shephard write your lesson plans. If politicians have their way, teaching methods will be prescribed, rather than teachers being allowed to make their own decisions. Unnecessarily alarmist? Well listen to this salutary story.

Back in 1980 I wrote an article entitled "State-approved knowledge? - 10 steps down the slippery slope". It described 10 stages that would be needed for the state to have a complete grip on what was taught in schools.

At that time, before the introduction of the national curriculum, we only had the first step, centrally prescribed broad aims, such as "help pupils develop lively, enquiring minds". It was self-evident candy floss that only psychopaths would oppose, as harmless as saying that Tuesday should follow Monday.

At a national conference, a senior government adviser said that I was being "unnecessarily alarmist", as the Government had no intention of going beyond step three, "an agreed syllabus". In 1996 we now have seven of the 10 steps fully in place, with prescriptions about syllabus, tests, league tables, and legal compulsion to teach what the Government of the day determines. The missing three steps are centrally prescribed teaching materials, remedial programmes and teaching strategies.

You only have to look at the pronouncements of leading politicians to see that the temptation to tell teachers how to teach is getting stronger by the hour.

The tactics employed follow well-trodden routes. Stage 1: tell the public that schools are failing. Stage 2: attack teachers for incompetence. The third stage then appears logical, for if teachers cannot teach, they have to be told what to do. Kwality with a Kalashnikov. Simple, isn't it?

Tony Blair made a speech about the need for setting instead of mixed-ability grouping, in which he specifically stated that this was not a matter for the Government to decide, but for the professional judgment of teachers. However, the spin doctors made sure that the impression given to press and public was that schools would be told what to do.

Gillian Shephard was much less subtle. She turned her attention instead to teacher training - a clumsy way of demeaning experienced teachers, because it wrote them off as a lost cause. I get just as fed up with attacks on teacher training as I do of attacks on teachers. Most teacher trainers are highly skilled at analysing lessons, courses have been "reformed" every couple of years, and surveys show that over 90 per cent of heads are pleased with the newly qualified teachers they have appointed.

It is interesting to see the tactics politicians are using to get control over teaching methods. Kenneth Baker developed them, as every one of his speeches was a triumph of tone over substance. He was always "ploughing on to the end of the furrow". Never mind what the furrow actually was, or where it led, or whether he ploughed up the dining-room carpet by mistake. The tough-sounding tone was the thing.

The secret is the Three Word Trick. You select a word from each of three lists. The first list is verbs, the second adjectives, the third nouns. So in list one you pick a macho verb, such as "enforce", "compel", "determine", "order", "impose", "demand", "require". List two offers powerful adjectives, like "tough", "rigorous", "complete", "searching", "far-reaching", "strong", "firm". The third list is of impressive-looking nouns, such as "discipline", "scrutiny", "performance", "standards", "achievement". There are no weasel or wimpish words, like "reflect", "care" or "consider" .

The method is dead easy. Look out for numerous examples as the general election approaches. Perm any three and you get gems like "We shall impose tough standards", or "The Government will demand firm discipline". It's a great game, and anyone can play. The only problem comes if you get the words a bit mixed up and say "We shall demand rigorous and far-reaching netball" or "I will impose tough art".

But does anyone seriously think that teachers can be told, on a daily basis, exactly how to teach? Chris Woodhead says that maths lessons should consist of at least 60 per cent whole-class teaching. The research evidence on effective teaching is clear on one matter in particular - that there is no single omni-purpose "good" way. It depends substantially on the context.

So if someone does impose a quota, what do you do if you run out of time? "Er look Year 1, I'm afraid I've just gone over quota on 'whole-class teaching', so if you sit quietly I'll just come and whisper Little Red Riding Hood into your left ear. It will take a while for me to get round to everybody . . ."

Or teachers might be saying: "Now Year l0, pay attention. I'm going to ask you six questions, explain three key concepts, and then you've got, I make it, seven minutes and three seconds in your groups to write the 100-word Government-approved response to the question 'Are there such things as black holes?'."

Or perhaps even: "Sound it out Jemima, because the Government says I've got to use lots of phonics, so let me hear you say h-i-c-c-o-u-g-h equals 'huhickerkerohuggerhuh', nice and clear now. A funny word? Yes, it's a Martian expression meaning 'a complete prat'."

Of course the official response to the very suggestion that the Government is trying to tell teachers how to teach will be to deny it. "Us guv? Would we be so silly as to tell teachers how to do their job? And how could we possibly enforce it?". To which the answer is: wait until there is a government-imposed teacher-training curriculum and the Office for Standards in Education is asked to comment on the application of government-approved teaching methods as part of every school inspection.

"Unnecessarily alarmist", as they said back in 1980.

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