Will Blair dare to trust teachers?

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
DUCK! Here comes the pendulum! It's swinging back again! You know, the one that sweeps back and forth between prescription and freedom, formal teaching and discovery learning, between trusting teachers (and children) and telling them exactly what to do.

The pendulum which traversed a decade through the launch of the national curriculum in 1989, the introduction of league tables, the war against the "questionable dogmas" of child-centred learning; naming and shaming, test-result targets, and the detailed syllabuses for the literacy and numeracy hours has run out of oomph. It will be brought down by its own weight. But not just that, of course. The mood is changing. And though it may not be felt in schools for a while yet, the signs are there.Here are some of them:

The assertion by David Hargreaves, the Government's newly-appointed chief curriculum and exams adviser, that he wants to shape an assessment "revolution" after the 2002 literacy and numeracy targets are over with. The emphasis will be on formative assessment - designed to help teachers move children on rather than just test what pupils know.

The Government's interest in thinking skills, citizenship and social inclusion.

Creativity is the buzzword of the moment. Conferences are being organised about it, articles written, research undertaken. People are still complaining that it's being squeezed out of primary schools - but they are also actively seeking to bring it back. School governing bodies have taken up the issue. The Government is even sanctioning a loosening of the literacy hour structure to allow more creative writing and drama.

The new foundation stage for three to five-year-olds, which brings reception children back into the early-years fold.

Its new learning goals reassert the importance of play in young children's development and pu personal and social education at the heart of their curriculum.

I realised that the pendulum was beginning to swing back during a conference on thinking skills organised by the National Primary Trust. Professor Christine Pascal, co-director of the Effective Early Learning project at University College, Worcester, told us that the magic ingredient that turns a good teacher into an exceptional one is the ability to generate a sense of autonomy and mastery in children. Her project has demonstrated - through rigorous assessment of teachers' performance - what teachers used to believe instinctively. But getting children to feel they are learners in their own right is a teaching skill that has declined over the past decade.

It was important for practitioners to help children achieve emotional resilience, but teachers' well-being was also crucial. "We have to reclaim the game," she said.

And instead of thinking, dream on, Christine, as I would have done a few years ago, I thought, yes, this is where we are heading.

Maybe it is again possible to quote the 1967 Plowden Report: "At the heart of the educational process lies the child" without being vilified. But the challenge one day will be to keep the pendulum from swinging back too far. When Lady Plowden and her committee concluded that "finding out" was better for children than "being told", they were writing against a backdrop of boring, highly formal primary schools geared to the 11-plus.

Now we have the opportunity to retain the solid skills gained through the national strategies and use them as a foundation for creativity. It will just need a little push from a government willing to ease up on prescription and red tape and able to trust teachers and children.

Diane Hofkins edits TES Primary magazine. The June issue is now on sale at newsagents

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