Yesterday's answer totomorrow's problems

11th October 1996 at 01:00
There are some surprising features in common between late medieval cosmology and Astrid Ritchie's thinking (TESS, August 30). The medieval view of the solar system (that the sun goes round the earth) was validated by commonsense observation of the sun every day. It was founded on dogma (humanity had to be at the centre of the universe). It required ever more complicated adjustments (wheels within wheels) to maintain its match with reality. It was the answer to yesterday's questions. It permitted one to avoid facing today's and tomorrow's difficult questions. It was supported by political authority. And it was in the end profoundly mistaken.

There is a speciously attractive commonsense view that we should be able to give children simple little tests that will readily tell them apart. Since we know that every learner is an individual with their own strengths and weaknesses it should be easy to assess these differences. After all it is easy to weigh children or measure their height; why should it be more difficult to measure their learning?

The dogma (not often articulated too publicly) that underpins the commitment to easy summative testing and labelling is the belief that inequality is a necessary, possibly welcome, feature of our society. There is in this system of thought no point in treating people as equal because they are not equal; schools should recognise this fact and sort out pupils into groups of the more able and the less able.

The ever more convoluted and detailed prescriptions required by proponents of national testing and setting are displayed in Mrs Ritchie's article with its proposals for testing in S1 to confirm briefly what the primary teacher had already told the secondary school in detail. Pupils can be put into separate sets in S1 so that they can be provided with the work that suits their needs, now identified by a simple label rather than by the complex description; indeed continuity and progression are put at risk by such proposals.

Mrs Ritchie's views on "basic skills" are based on outdated psychology, outdated pedagogy and on philosophies and techniques developed in the earliest years of industrial mass production; they are lacking somewhat in relevance in a society in which we know much more about the varied ways in which people learn and in which we make much greater demands on pupils than the easily assessed and very limited three Rs.

There is a seductive attraction in national testing and setting to some (including some teachers, hard pressed and harassed as a result of underfunding by Mrs Ritchie's ministerial friends) in that it allows us to avoid thinking through the hard questions which we have to face up to when we try to improve learning. Learning and teaching are complex, interrelated activities, not the simple processes assumed by Mrs Ritchie's friends in government.

It is evident that national testing and setting are supported with the full political weight of the Government. Indeed the Education Minister's recent pronouncements favouring setting has been followed by a statement from HMI in favour of setting. The problem for Mrs Ritchie and her friends is that simplistic approaches will not work in the longer term.

There seems to be some evidence from south of the border that the imposition of stronger versions of Mrs Ritchie's proposals is being accompanied by lower attainment levels and higher rates of exclusion. Mrs Ritchie ignores the work done in Scotland and across the world on teaching and learning, on school improvement and on the curriculum as she seeks to impose yesterday's answers on tomorrow's questions.

George MacBride is convener of the educa-tion committee of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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