Primary cause of failure?

Labour has turned its back on 'progressive' notions amid concern over standards of numeracy and literacy among 11-year-olds. Lucy Hodges charts the return to basics
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The Independent Online
It's official. Labour has junked progressive primary education in favour of discipline, teaching phonics and setting by ability. New- fangled ideas which pervaded many primary school classrooms in the 1960s and 1970s - summed up in the notion that children should not be taught anything until they were ready for it - have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

The announcement of the party's back to basics crusade, signalled in a speech by David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, to the National Association of Head Teachers last week, marks the end of an era. "It's the end of ignoring primary education," said Blunkett in an interview with the Independent. "We need to break the complacency."

A new consensus is emerging that primary schooling matters just as much as, if not more than, secondary schooling to how children perform at GCSE and A-level. At the same time, Chris Woodhead, the abrasive Chief Inspector of Schools, points to a developing crisis in literacy and numeracy at primary level. National tests at 11 show that half our children are below par in mathematics and English. A recent study for the National Institute of Economic and Social Research found a gap of up to two years in maths between English and Swiss pupils at the age of 10 and 11, despite the fact that Swiss children had been at school for a shorter time.

Another piece of research, from Professor David Reynolds of Newcastle University, shows the gap in achievement between the highest and lowest performing pupils widens rather than narrows between the ages of seven and 11 in British primary schools. In Taiwan, schools are able to close that gap.

Thirty years ago we didn't have such rigorous international comparisons and league tables. In 1967, when the Plowden report on primary education was published, our concerns were quite different. Britain was a declining world power but it was not economically slipping out of sight of Singapore and Hong Kong.

In fact the Plowden committee was established when British primary schools were considered the envy of the world - full of happy, stimulated pupils with big smiles on their faces. The committee was interested in the issue of how children learn, not whether they were achieving to agreed standards. At the time it was becoming accepted that children learn best if they are in charge of their own learning and interested in what they are doing - happy in class rather than bored and afraid.

"The assumption was that if one encourages children and stimulates them, they will learn skills and techniques in a more fundamental way than if these things are simply imposed on them," says Maurice Kogan, who was secretary to the Plowden committee and is now Professor of Government at Brunel University.

Plowden became a symbol for progressive primary education, even though much of it was fairly good common sense, and anyway simply an endorsement of what was considered good practice at the time. (It viewed punctuation, spelling and the use of paragraphs, for example, as very important and said children could be taught with a range of techniques.) The point was that, although Plowden said many traditional things, it was interpreted as being all about child-centred education. Exploring topics in groups as opposed to teaching the whole class became the order of the day.

What parents saw when they went in to many classrooms was children sitting round tables rather than at individual desks. Some pupils might be purposefully employed; others not. The technique was tough on the teacher because it required her or him to keep tabs on so many individuals and activities at once. One could argue it was tough also on the child, particularly a child from a disadvantaged background, who needed more contact with the teacher.

"The problem with progressive methods was not that they never worked," says Michael Barber, Dean of New Initiatives at London's Institute of Education and the man appointed by Labour to head a new task force on literacy. "If they were applied with rigour and clarity, they were very successful. But it was hard to use them well. In good primaries which adopted them they were very successful."

Too often, however, modern methods turned into sloppiness. The emphasis on group and project work meant some children were not learning the basics properly. Without a national curriculum and testing, and without the unpopular 11-plus examination, which had been phased out almost everywhere, there was no way to gauge achievement.

That changed with Conservative government reforms - the advent of the national curriculum and testing at ages seven and 11. Now there is little doubt that the political right has won the battle on standards, and that Labour is playing catch-up.

Politicians around the globe have become increasingly worried about educational standards as research has revealed the central role of education in economic performance. Moreover, research shows that what we have been doing in British schools over the past 20 to 30 years hasn't worked well enough. We know from international surveys that there is a huge range among British children - our brightest are as good as those anywhere - but the worst- performing are worse than others. Too many children are poor at number work and some do not read very well.

"We know increasing amounts about school effectiveness and school improvement and that gives us the means of finding techniques that are more likely to work," says Professor Barber. "We know that whole-class teaching does appear to have a strong role to play as one strategy among many."

Professor Reynolds of Newcastle University endorses this point. Throwing children back on their own resources by leaving them to do their own learning in groups may be responsible for the huge range in achievement we have in Britain, he thinks. The outer London borough of Barking has been experimenting successfully with whole-class teaching of mathematics on the Swiss model. It is projects such as this that Blunkett is keen to promote. "David Blunkett is raiding the planet for ideas and propagandising what appears to work," says Reynolds.

Thus a new Labour government would slim down the curriculum and reform teacher training so that teachers were better able to manage a class and teach the basics. Its literacy task force would ensure that all children without special needs leaving primary schools have a reading age of at least 11.

Baseline assessment - the testing of all five-year-olds - would enable schools and parents to see where their child started from and how much progress they were making.

Not everyone is happy, however, with Labour's adoption of ideas hitherto associated with the political right, even though the details differ from Conservative policies. Professor Kogan, for example, is sorry the pendulum has swung back away from what he calls a "humanistic" view of education.

But even teachers' union leaders are coming round to the idea that all is not roses in primary school education. "I think that the issues surrounding standards and the need to improve standards are real issues," says Peter Smith, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "I think teachers and teachers' organisations have got to take them very seriously indeed, uncomfortable though they may be."