Steve McCormack: Extra lessons? Get real, Ms Kelly

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The Independent Online

So, if Labour wins the election, your sons and daughters will have more time in smaller classes to brush up on their areas of weakness.

So, if Labour wins the election, your sons and daughters will have more time in smaller classes to brush up on their areas of weakness. All you have to do is to exercise your parent power. Give the school a call, and a tailored session will be organised, perhaps after school, based on... well, based on whatever you like, really. Simultaneous equations or irregular French verbs for some; simple subtraction, or just reading practice, for others.

I wonder if Ruth Kelly really believes this. Has she spoken to a single teacher, spending most of their week in classes of 30 or so teenagers, to ask whether any of it sounds remotely feasible? Their answer would be that it is fanciful nonsense. Most secondary-school teachers who are not part of a school's management structure have a timetable that puts them in front of a class for about 90 per cent of the school week. In their registers will be the names of anything up to 200 pupils of different ages, abilities and characteristics. Each one will have an exercise book, which the teacher will try to look at carefully once a week.

Keeping on top of that load is burden enough, without the time expended on behaviour and other pastoral issuescentral to the wider education process, or the extracurricular clubs and activities many willingly do now. Where is there room for the extra tuition and support, in small groups, promised in Labour's mini-manifesto? The presumption must be that all parents will be entitled to ask for such help for their children. Government spin directs our attention at boosting the achievements of struggling pupils and stretching the brightest. But what about those in between? They have difficulties, too. They might like an extra half-an-hour with Sir or Miss.

The truth is that we have been presented with an image of something that, short of giving every school 10 more teachers, isn't possible. How it can be done seems to have been roughed out on the back of a school timetable. The national curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds could actually, we are told, be taught in half the time devoted to it at present. It will be "freed up" to create the space and teacher time needed.

Oh, why didn't we think of that? Just slice teaching time in half, without affecting what children learn, and use the slack to put on extra lessons in cosy, smaller groups. Even Mr Incredible couldn't better that. The truth, of course, is that we're in the run-up to an election and every political sinew is being stretched to promise the Earth and hope no one puts their hand up at the back and asks how. Behind much of the rhetoric is Labour's obsession with what it calls "personalised learning" - a slogan dreamt up somewhere on Planet Miliband around the turn of the millennium, which has now wormed its way around most of the Department for Education and Skills. It encompasses a hotch-potch of teaching and organisational innovations, designed to give the impression that "learners" are getting a better deal, something more closely tailored to their individual needs. Nothing wrong with that in principle. So why have I not once, in four years working in state comprehensives, heard a single teacher use the phrase "personalised learning"?

Because there's absolutely nothing new in it. For decades, teachers and schools have done their best to treat pupils as individuals and recognise strengths and weaknesses. What they haven't done is waste time and money giving this a fancy, fatuous label. Most teachers won't even notice this latest pledge from Ms Kelly. Nor the next one, nor the one after that. Immediate priorities often mean that Government initiatives are simply shelved.

As Tony Blair's former speechwriter, Peter Hyman, observed in the book he wrote after exchanging his Downing Street job for that of a teaching assistant in a London comprehensive, schools needs fewer eye-catching initiatives concocted in Whitehall and more time and money to get on with their jobs in their own way.

It's a pity that more of the policymakers Hyman left behind don't seem to have acted on his advice.

The writer teaches part-time in an outer-London comprehensive

education@independent.co.uk

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