What shall we tell the parents?

28th August 1998 at 01:00
WE DIDN'T DO THAT WHEN I WAS AT SCHOOL. Radio 4 (longwave). Sundays 8.30-9.00pm. From August 23

The name of the game, in this six-part series for the Open University, is "reassurance", chiefly for parents, who might make the remark in the title and be disturbed by the feeling that their children are not getting a "proper" education; but also for teachers. those starting out, especially, will like to know that, on the whole, they are doing a worthwhile job, and may find it useful to have answers for parents who question their methods. The presenter is Ted Wragg, as reassuring a figure as you can get.

The first subject was primary-school maths, perhaps the most contentious issue of all. We know that international league tables regularly show British children lagging behind - and when a government minister can't multiply eight by seven, it is hard not to believe that something is wrong.

Of course, the still, small voice of Wragg has been arguing for some time against the storm of outrage and despair that such tables can be misleading: reports in the press overlook the fact that our children tend to have a better spatial sense than those in Japan or Korea, where government ministers are said to spend sleepless nights agonising over their children's lack of creativity. The question is, how do we find the ideal, middle way?

Together with his guest for the week, comedian Hattie Hayridge, Professor Wragg dropped in on some maths classes to discover what was actually going on and learn the rationale behind it. Parents who were taught by earlier methods will appreciate the point that the emphasis used to be on pupils answering someone else's questions (all those sums), and perhaps concede that they may learn better when encouraged to ask some questions for themselves. Ah, you say, but what about tables? Answer: everyone recognises that automatic responses are also valuable - and you can be sure the minister wished that his had been in better working order.

If there is an unstated theme to this first programme - and one that was not stressed as much as it might have been - it is the danger of underestimating what children can do; for example, believing that young children are unable to deal with numbers larger than 10, or that 10-year-olds will necessarily have difficulty with decimal places.

"I don't think they're challenged enough," says an Indian mother, comparing her children's experience at school here, with her own in the far more regimented and teacher-centred system in India when she was young.

After numeracy, literacy. This second programme will deal not only with reading and writing, but also the literacy canon and oral skills. Then there will be a programme on science, considering the fall-off in the numbers of pupils taking sciences at higher levels and explaining the National Grid for Learning; and another on history and the humanities, touching on such questions as the importance of these subjects in the curriculum and the use of empathetic role play in teaching history.

Different guests each week will contribute their points of view. Unfortunately, there is nothing specific on modern languages; the remainder of the series will be concerned with more general matters, such as discipline and bullying.

Not all parents will be so easily persuaded that schools have got much better since their own days at Dotheboys Hall. But there should be reassurance for most; and, one hopes, a sense of where improvements could still be made.

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