NEWSPAPER headlines announced: "Schools face 3Rs shake-up" and "Call for return to traditional school lessons". It was exactly 10 years ago, and Kenneth Clarke, a Tory education secretary gearing up for an election, had just published a major report on primary education which he could use in his "back to basics" campaign.
Progressive, child-centred teaching was already under heavy attack. So were the local authorities and teacher training colleges who were accused of promoting these "loopy" methods. Ministers wanted a return to whole-class teaching, based on subjects, with children sitting in rows.
The so-called "Three Wise Men" report was heralded as the death-knell of topic work and individualised learning. But of course, it did not call for a wholesale swing to traditional methods. It urged balance, high expectations and a focus on outcomes. It deplored the polarisation of the debate, and urged "a more mature and balanced discussion of the issues". But it did challenge accepted good practice and enjoined teachers to "abandon the dogma of recent decades". The government of the day insisted that, although it had legislated on what should be taught (through the new national curriculum), how to teach it was up to teachers, not ministers.
The "Three Wise Men" report said teachers should be equipped and free to choose the best method for the particular purpose of a particular lesson. But it can be argued that the report helped to set the scene for the unprecedented government intervention in teaching we have seen under New Labour. It also helped to set the standards agenda by pointing to what could be achieved and examining how this could be done.
Whatever its influence down the years, the report itself was written in only six weeks. It was dubbed the "Three Wise Men" because Clarke had announced his three-man inquiry in the run-up to Christmas. Since the report's eventual title, Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools: A Discussion Paper, was not very catchy (and also inaccurate; it was only about the junior years), the moniker stuck.
The trio were Jim Rose, the chief primary HMI, Robin Alexander, an education professor whose comprehensive study of Leeds primary schools had exposed serious weaknesses in accepted methodology, and Chris Woodhead, then chief executive of the National Curriculum Council. Their brief was to examine research and inspection evidence, and make recommendations.
Ten years on, it reads like straightforward common sense with a few damp squibs thrown in. It called for a balance between whole-class teaching, group and individual work, said teachers should have a battery of pedagogic skills - such as questioning and explaining - and use them where appropriate, and urged higher expectations of pupils, especially those from deprived backgrounds. There should be a mix of topic work and subject teaching, and more subject specialists, underpinned by more funding. More provocatively, it said, "over the last few decades the progress of primary pupils has been hampered by the influence of highly questionable dogmas which have led to excessively complex classroom practices and devalued the place of subjects in the curriculum. The resistance to subjects at the primary level is no longer tenable".
Predictions of a "revolution in the classroom" have proved correct. Primary schools today are very different from 10 years ago, and the progressive-traditional debate is pretty much dead. Whether the report itself is a cause of the change, or a reflection, it can certainly be seen as a landmark in primary education history.
It ushered in what can now be called "the decade of primary education", says Robin Alexander. Primary schools were at the cutting edge - and under the cosh - for the whole of the 1990s. They were the first to take on all the national curriculum reforms - massive new demands, highly experimental national tests, the overload - and then the national literacy and numeracy strategies. Robin Alexander says it is difficult to judge the "Three Wise Men" report's long-term effect on teaching practice, but "coming out after a decade of research, it announced that pedagogy had come of age. We had to re-evaluate what we meant by teaching and learning."
On its political influence, he says, "one of the ironies of all this is that at the time the then government was happy to castigate local education authorities for exerting excessive amounts of power over teachers in the classroom. Was it that they wanted teachers to become more autonomous, or to take the power for themselves?" In the end, it became irresistible. If pedagogy were centre stage, New Labour wanted to direct it. With the national literacy and numeracy strategies came instructions on how to teach, on which teachers then felt judged during Office for Standards in Education inspections. "Wise Man" Chris Woodhead became chief inspector in 1994.
Ten years ago, teachers felt they had to make all their own resources; today, Government-produced teaching materials proliferate. "The concept of good practice has been replaced by the concept of best practice," says Sheila Dainton, education policy adviser at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "But who are the arbiters of best practice?" Many educationists and practitioners worry that debate on teaching and learning is being stifled, along with teachers' creativity, because the Government now thinks it knows what works.
Jim Rose disagrees with them. The strategies are tools, with "lots of room for flexibility", he says. "I don't go along with the line that it's painting teachers into a non-creative corner. I'm sure it's not." He says he has seen highly imaginative teaching by young practitioners using the strategies.
The "Three Wise Men", he says, tried to make the case for more teaching of a direct kind in schools where all the emphasis was on child-initiated learning. HMI evidence had shown that "quite significant numbers of children were receiving very little teaching at all in some areas of the curriculum." There was also much uncertainty about the teaching of literacy. Disadvantaged children lost out the most, and the trio wanted to "make it absolutely rock solid" that all children should get a good deal. "What we should do is congratulate ourselves heartily on the quality of some of the materials we now have."
The "Three Wise Men" also marked a change in thinking on child development. It highlighted a switch from the Piagetian view that children were "ready" for certain types of learning at particular ages to Vygotsky's view that education is acceleration - advancing children rather than waiting until they are ready for the next stage. This meant that it was important for teachers to be "agents of learning" rather than "facilitators".
Context is important. Whereas the 1967 Plowden report wanted children to have more opportunity to find things out for themselves, as an antidote to the dull and didactic classrooms of the 1950s, the "Wise Men" wrote after the pendulum had swung far in the opposite direction.
The prevailing orthodoxy about good practice in the primary world was of a "busy classroom", where five or six groups of self-motivated children carried out different activities. Teachers followed the interests of the child and the main medium for learning was the topic (rainforests, the weather), into which all subjects could be mixed. Carried out with rigour by dedicated and well-trained practitioners who understood its philosophy and planned thoroughly, it encompassed some excellent and highly creative teaching. But it was very hard to do well, and in some local authorities teachers were pressured to teach in ways they did not find comfortable.
The "Three Wise Men" report changed the climate and gave permission to teachers to do what they felt was best for their pupils and to use more traditional methods if they wished. The report was never intended to lead to a prescriptive, centralised system.
Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, thinks the pendulum of change is on the swing again, away from prescription and towards the mid-point between traditional and progressive methods which the three advocated. Education Secretary Estelle Morris has been speaking of individualised learning, flexibility and trusting teachers. "It's ironic that on the 10th anniversary of the report we have the best chance of finally getting what the 'Three Wise Men' talked about," he says.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
ROBIN Alexander moved from Leeds to Warwick University as professor of education in 1995. He now combines a part-time position at Cambridge with research and consultancy, especially in connection with India's District Primary Education Programme, the world's largest education reform initiative. His comparative study of primary education in five countries, Culture and Pedagogy, has been well received, and he is now doing follow-up work. He is a member of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
JIM Rose, chief HMI for primary in 1992, later became director of inspection at OFSTED - number two to Chris Woodhead, along with Mike Tomlinson. Now a happily retired grandfather, he consults around the world on inspection and is doing consultancy work for the Department for Education and Skills on induction training for teaching assistants.
CHRIS Woodhead moved from the National Curriculum Council in 1994 to become OFSTED's chief inspector, and left a year ago. He then wrote columns for the Daily Telegraph (his contract ends next month), and worked for the PR firm Bell Pottinger. His book, Class War - expected to argue that British schools are failing - is due out this year.