Education: Personally speaking

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The Independent Online
When I was a probationary teacher in my first term of teaching in a London comprehensive, my head of department, a gifted, imaginative English teacher, gave me some good advice. He said: "If you have one or two troublemakers in your lesson, it's often tempting to punish them by keeping the whole class behind. Don't. It may work once or twice, because of peer pressure, but in the long run it will only cause resentment and you'll lose the goodwill of those who want to learn and who haven't done anything wrong." Painful experience soon taught me that he was right.

Yet for the past 18 years, teachers have been living with the political equivalent of being kept behind. And, judging by the recommendations of the Literacy Task Force, commissioned by David Blunkett and chaired by Professor Michael Barber, a Labour government looks unlikely to break the mould. On the face of it their aims are laudable. For too long, the consultative document argues, we have allowed a situation to develop which consistently fails certain children. If you study the statistics, you find that equivalent schools can produce dramatically different levels of literacy, and this, they rightly state, cannot be allowed to continue.

In particular, the Task Force attempts to redress an implied assumption that not all children are capable of achieving a nationally identified standard of literacy. For a substantial number of pupils, they argue, our expectations have been too low.

But reading between the lines is also an important skill, and you need barely a second glance at this document to understand the level of prescription that is being suggested. It spells out in minute detail how student teachers should be taught to teach reading, how serving teachers are to be retrained, and exactly what children are to do in the hour a day they are to spend on literacy activities.

There are differences between this document and the Tories' National Literacy Project, launched last year by Gillian Shephard. The unions have been more involved in the consultancy process, as have a more diverse group of teachers. The model of literacy is, in theory at least, based on a slightly more developmental model than that of the Literacy Project, and there is a greater emphasis on classes reading a book together. But the message coming through is the same. "One or two of you teachers and trainers have misbehaved and so you're all staying back until the culprits have learned their lesson."

Labour does face a dilemma with education. The Conservatives have seriously eroded public confidence in the professionalism of teachers, and in the ability of local education authorities to monitor them. So any policy that suggests trusting their ideas or solutions seems like consorting with the enemy. The original national curriculum was, like this document, a statement of the entitlement of all children to the highest quality of education. But it was based on the assumption that the people carrying it out were untrustworthy. The only way to ensure that it was delivered, and at the same time to look as though you were taking positive action, was to legislate centrally. Beside this, anything else looks feeble.

But it is the weak teacher who punishes the class unfairly. You have to earn the respect of your pupils, and this involves targeting discipline at those who need it while liberating the ambitions of the rest. There are many excellent local initiatives, and even more imaginative, innovative teachers who are being held back by government-made lesson plans. If a Labour government gets in in May, they will need the support of teachers to raise achievement. And they should remember: you do not raise standards by pandering to the lowest common denominator. You simply lose the goodwill of those who want to do well, and haven't done anything wrongn

The writer is a lecturer in education at King's College London.