Schools chief attacks progressive methods
Friday 27 January 1995
In a highly controversial lecture, the first to be delivered by the holder of his post, Chris Woodhead lambasted both teachers and academics for clinging to a professional culture that barred whole-class teaching and emphasised skills rather than facts.
Mr Woodhead, who began his job as head of the Office for Standards in Education last October, took his stand firmly beside traditionalists with his indictment of progressive teaching methods.
The Chief Inspector is independent of the Government and has declared views which will infuriate teachers, at a time when Gillian Shepherd, the Secretary of State for Education, is trying to placate them.
Teachers, he said, remained hostile to teaching the whole class rather than groups despite research showing that the former was often easier and more effective.
They rejected the idea that children should be taught facts about their cultural heritage and they were doctrinaire about child-centred learning. They thought wrongly that education had to be relevant to children's background and they believed skills were more important than knowledge.
Mr Woodhead, one of the authors three years ago of a government-commissioned report on primary education, said: "What too often we have is an emotional commitment to beliefs about the purposes and conduct of education which militates against any genuinely searching educational debate."
Primary teachers were always telling him, he said, that education was about the child, not the curriculum. That was a logical absurdity.
"Why anyone should suppose that a concern to identify which aspects of our cultural inheritance are worth teaching should necessarily imply the adoption of the most tedious teaching approaches, I don't understand. Some teachers simply reject out of hand any concept of education which seeks to define that which should be taught as an entitlement to all children irrespective of their immediate wants."
Education should be the "disinterested study of the best that has been thought and said" but schools were often not fulfilling that aim.
Professors of education, he suggested, were biased in their discussion of education. They should be willing to give credit to government policies. "If a visitor from Mars were to scrutinise the arguments of leading professors of education, he/she/it would not, I think, come to the conclusion that [with a few honourable exceptions] their stance was one of complete academic neutrality."
A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers said: "Teachers are very practical and concerned for their children. They mix and match their teaching methods to suit the children they are teaching and the buildings they are using. They use their professional judgement which Gillian Shepherd sets great store by."
Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "At a time when Gillian Shephard seems to be winning the hearts and minds of teachers, Mr Woodhead, who is in a position far too eminent to permit naivety, makes a speech which could reignite the fire whose embers are dying out.
"Where are these dogmatic teachers? He should name them. His rhetoric detracts from the agenda of raising standards by scapegoating teachers. If he was in the private sector, Mr Woodhead would be sent on a long management training course."
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