Analysis: Blunkett treads a bumpy road to reform

Head Teachers' conference: As Labour turns its back on progressive education, schools crave hard cash to improve standards
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The Independent Online
David Blunkett must have felt relieved yesterday when his call for a return to traditional teaching methods in primary schools was received with polite restraint by head teachers. Three years ago when John Patten, then Secretary of State for Education, delivered a similar message he was booed.

The warmer reception which greeted Mr Blunkett at this year's National Association of Head Teachers' conference was due in part to the fact that he is not yet in power, and the catcalls which Mr Patten faced owed something to the profession's frustration over issues such as testing, league tables, and the National Curriculum.

But the intervening years have also seen a sea-change in classrooms which Labour's education spokesman must have known would work in his favour. In 1993, the Government's "Three Wise Men" report on primary-school teaching methods had just recommended the increase in whole-class teaching, phonics and streaming which Mr Blunkett now advocates. At the time, teachers were angered by the suggestion from educationalists Chris Woodhead, Robin Alexander and Jim Rose that their reluctance to abandon the progressive style of the 1960s had caused pupils to fail.

They maintained that they had always used a mixture of methods, and to an extent they were right. But despite the profession's initial resistance the ideological pendulum has begun to swing back in favour of traditional teaching. Primary teachers are more likely to deliver their lessons to a whole class, rather than allowing children to work in groups, and children are more likely to be put into sets according to ability.

So Mr Blunkett, whose decision to set out guidance on teaching methods contrasts sharply with his party's earlier laissez-faire attitude, is pushing at a door which is already half-open. He knows, though, that he is entering a debate which has raged fiercely for more than three decades, and he has done his homework. His researches have taken him back to the Plowden report of 1967, which he criticised yesterday for promoting progressive methods and clouding the importance of direct teaching. He has noted that as early as 1982 primary schools were being urged to sharpen up their practice in the teaching of maths. And he has pointed out that research published a decade ago highlighted gaps in achievement between schools with very similar intakes.

He has been careful not to lay all the blame for failures in literacy and numeracy at the door of the teaching profession, though. He has blamed the Government for failing to spread good practice and for allowing the National Curriculum to squeeze out the basics.

The road he has chosen, however, is a bumpy one. Two groups, both vocal and determined, are bound to protest.

The teacher trainers, accused by Mr Blunkett of turning out recruits who cannot teach the basics or control a class, will argue that problems in primary schools have more to do with under-funding and a surfeit of government initiatives than with sub-standard training or an attachment to 1960s ideology.

There is also an element in the teaching profession which will remain deeply sceptical. Many teachers still believe that education is about exploration and discovery rather than about cramming facts into heads. They will be no more willing to respond to a Labour Party which they believe has put on Conservatives' clothing than they have been to the pressures exerted by the Government.

For now, most teachers are reserving judgement until they see what a Labour government will do. Their overriding concern is that more money should be put into education, and they will be much more ready to listen to arguments about what they do in their classrooms if they have the books and resources they need.

Mr Blunkett should not assume that the heads' muted response yesterday was a sign of approval. If he does not have some hard cash in his back pocket by the time he visits next year's conference, he should prepare himself for a rough ride.

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