What makes a first-clas teacher: There are nine subjects on the national curriculum for primary schools. Judith Judd looks at the latest thinking on how they should be taught

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The Independent Online
Anxiety about standards and the demands of teaching nine national curriculum subjects to young pupils have pushed the quality of primary schooling to the top of the education agenda.

There have been a number of important studies during the past 20 years that have provided clear clues to what makes good primary teaching, but, until recently, most teachers have paid little attention to them. Politicians have paid even less. In her pamphlet What We Know About Effective Primary Teaching, published last year, Caroline Gipps, a researcher at the Institute of Education in London, says: 'Education in this country is characterised by the absence of any serious discussion of pedagogy - the science of teaching - and official documents are characterised by their absence of theory.' During the whole of the development of the national curriculum, she points out, nobody gave a thought to how it was going to be taught.

All that is changing, however. For the past year, the National Curriculum Council has been reviewing the primary curriculum: its final report went to John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, last week. Mr Patten has yet to decide when he will publish it, but the report's broad contents are well known.

It advocates a better mix of individual, group and whole-class teaching, with more teaching by subject specialists; it proposes slimming down the curriculum content without reducing the range of subjects covered; and it urges the Government to take a hard look at whether primary teachers are being properly trained to deliver the national curriculum.

Ministers and their advisers are now talking about the themes that have preoccupied researchers and inspectors for 15 years: the value of traditional instruction from the front of the class, the need to teach only one subject area at a time rather than all-embracing topics, and the difficulties of mixed-ability teaching.

So what makes an effective primary teacher? Ms Gipps' pamphlet provides a useful summary of the research of four authorities on primary education: Neville Bennett, of Exeter University, Maurice Galton, of Leicester University, Peter Mortimore, deputy director of the London Institute, and Barbara Tizard, of the Thomas Coram research unit. Her conclusions suggest that a good primary schoolteacher should:

Focus on the whole class rather than individuals;

Use whole-class teaching while offering help to individuals or co-operative group work in which children help each other;

Teach one subject at a time;

Praise children as much as possible;

Have high expectations;

Encourage challenging talk rather than quiet, busy work;

Use a variety of teaching styles;

Allow children some independence and be democratic rather than autocratic about work and discipline;

Match work to a child's ability.

Not all the research findings sit comfortably beside what the Government is trying to do. The traditionalists' image of a teacher at the front of a quiet class of children is a long way from the lively questioning and varied strategies that the studies found worked best. The traditionalist lobby scathingly condemns primary teachers for overusing so-called 'discovery methods' - leaving pupils to find things out for themselves. Professor Galton's research suggests this is a myth; in many classrooms teachers spend a lot of time telling children what to do.

The most recent work on how to organise a classroom demonstrates that classes where children work mainly in groups rather than as a class can be effective, provided the groups are properly organised, enabling children to discuss with each other what they are doing.

Professor Galton also investigated how children's attitudes affect the teaching they receive, an issue largely ignored in the present debate. He found they were adept at devising strategies to slow down a class's rate of work, for example taking a long time to complete one work sheet so that they would not be given another. A class go-slow at the beginning of the autumn term could hoodwink a teacher into reducing their work rate for an entire year.

Most of the points being pursued by the Government have surfaced in the work of the four researchers outlined by Ms Gipps. From Professor Bennett's work, we know that even good teachers have great difficulty giving children work which matches their abilities, suggesting that large mixed-ability classes present serious problems.

From Professor Galton, we know that two types of teacher are most successful: those who can keep up a flow of challenging questions while switching consciously from class to individual teaching, and those who regularly work with the whole class, using high-level questions and praising children more often than their colleagues.

In Professor Mortimore's work we find a reinforcement of the idea that the more time teachers spend in purposeful talk with children, the more children learn, and this is easier to achieve when teachers regularly address the whole class. He also believes teachers who concentrate on one subject at a time are more successful.

Finally, Professor Tizard's research showed that teachers' expectations for a sample of inner-city children were too low and the amount of the curriculum covered - in pre-national curriculum days - varied widely between schools. Those teachers who covered less said the subjects omitted were too difficult, yet children of similar ability up the road had coped well with the harder tasks.

As Ms Gipps says, these findings are not an indictment of teachers, since all information about what makes a good teacher comes from watching good teachers at work. She believes teachers should use the research to develop a model for good teaching and that this would improve morale.

The difficulty is that some of the studies are now being used to back the views of a government which many teachers believe to be deeply hostile to them. Only an outbreak of magnanimity on all sides will allow a helpful debate to take place.

'What We Know About Effective Primary Teaching', by Caroline Gipps, is published by the Tufnell Press at pounds 3.95.