Trendies were 'crackers'

Andrew Cunningham

Schools chief admits experimental teaching was a waste of time, writes Andrew Cunningham

At last someone at the top of the educational establishment has admitted it: all those "trendy teaching" methods of the Sixties and Seventies were "crackers". Chief inspector David Bell has said out loud what every sensible parent and teacher has known for years: "experimental" teaching is a total waste of time.

What do we mean by "trendy teaching"? The liberal belief that, left to their own devices, children would somehow learn automatically, without any firm discipline or instructions.

Out of the window went correct spelling and grammar; out of the window too, went classroom competition and form-orders. Instead, children were free to "express themselves": even at a young age, when they should have been learning the basics of maths, science and English. Much of the legacy of that misled age lives on.

This July, the Prince of Wales identified "an entire generation of culturally disinherited young people" robbed of a sense of their own heritage by experimental, or trendy teaching.

He pinpointed the refusal in some educational quarters to teach a proper sense of British history. Gone were the kings and queens, the sense of historical context. In their place, was a diet of Hitler, Spanish Civil War and General Strike. Facts and frameworks had been replaced by woolly empathy.

Research by the Office for Standards in Education that same month also showed that teenagers, surprise, surprise, are taught next to nothing about the British Empire. Ofsted reported that "insufficient time" was spent on the Empire: surely the understatement of the year. On average, children aged 11 to 18 spend three or four lessons on the subject in five years at school. When children do learn about the Empire, it is invariably presented in a bad light, like some kind of monstrous aberration.

This muddled tinkering with our history is coupled with a reluctance to teach the classic literature that forms the foundation of our cultural achievements. It is now easy to get an A-level in "English" literature by studying almost entirely American texts.

Once again, there is little sense of discrimination between all-time greats and literary come-latelies. On today's syllabuses, writers like Ian McEwan and Roddy Doyle stand side-by-side with Jane Austen and Charles Dickens; poets like Jackie Kay and Liz Lochhead occupy the same plinths as Chaucer and Wordsworth.

Naturally there is constant hostility to the idea that teenagers should have to learn Shakespeare. This March, London university research revealed teenagers no longer had to read a Shakespeare play in full for GCSE:but could rely on "fragments" instead. Some classes on Macbeth even took place without copies of the text in the classroom.

One day, the trendies will have their way and Shakespeare will be dropped from the syllabus completely. There can also be a reluctance to teach the rudiments of punctuation and sentence construction in schools.

There are still influential English experts in our universities too, like Dr Bethan Marshall, of King's college London, who seem positively hostile to the idea of correct grammar and spelling. That helps explain why so many English teachers have to battle with teenagers who have so little understanding of their own language. For too long, there has also been the damaging view amongst so-called experts that team sports are somehow "wrong".

The fact is, many schoolchildren love competitive team sports and learn to work together from them: especially those who do not excel academically.

This lack of enthusiasm for team sports in parts of the maintained sector is reflected in the high proportions of privately-educated players in the current England cricket and rugby teams. Cricket, in particular, is slowly dying in many schools. Once again, our children are the losers. So there is still plenty of work to be done before trendy teaching methods are finally consigned to the dustbin of history, where they belong. But at least, with the honesty of chief inspector David Bell, we've just made a giant stride forward.

Dr Andrew Cunningham is editor of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference Conference and Common Room magazine

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Andrew Cunningham

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