Philip Hensher: What do politicians know about teaching?

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The Independent Online

Well, I don't know the best way to teach children how to read. Haven't a clue. Wouldn't know where to start. I'd probably get them to sing the alphabet song repeatedly, and then show them a great big picture of an elephant next to the word ELEPHANT. If that didn't do the trick, I expect I'd have another think.

But then, as I say, I haven't the faintest idea whether that's the best way to teach reading or not.

There again, if you had small children and were hoping that they'd be taught how to read in the most effective way possible, you probably wouldn't come to a journalist, just as you wouldn't go to a vet to find out about divorce law or a greengrocer to have your wisdom teeth seen to. Professions have their dignity, and their peculiar expertise, and we hardly ever give the matter a moment's thought, so obvious is the fact.

When it comes to teaching, however, professional expertise seems to have no value. Teachers, who, after all, ought to know what the best reading method is, have been punished for failing to come up with a single solution. Since the Government cannot live, it seems, with a multiplicity of approaches, it has imposed a rigid phonics method. If you wouldn't go to a journalist to find out the best way to teach reading, how much less would you ask a politician? Why is teacherly expertise so denigrated?

Steve Sinnott of the National Union of Teachers has said, surely unarguably, that what is needed is a system that is "liberal and flexible and not top-down, imposed by the Government". What, really, is the Government doing, imposing the exact methods by which everything may be taught? Why can't teachers bring a range of approaches to satisfy external, rigidly maintained standards of a public examination system?

There are many different methods of acquiring ability in reading, or reasoning, or any other complex intellectual activity, even if the task, ultimately, is the same. No wonder teachers are demoralised, when they are not allowed to exercise any professional judgement or thought, but just have to work to a set schedule laid down by politicians.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families will not have this, of course, and a spokeswoman commented on the NUT's argument both that "Phonics is here to stay, it is the best way of teaching children to read," and, literally in the same breath, that "the early years foundation stage is flexible enough to support a wide range of philosophies and needs of parents and settings". Well, which is it to be? But since the same spokeswoman said that the Government's rigid approach was justified by "record exam results", I think we can be justified in ignoring any nonsense that issues from that source.

Surely, this is not a complicated system to organise. Anyone can see that it's the Government's job to maintain solid, certifiable standards in the form of public examinations which bear comparison over time. It is the job of teachers to work out, with the full weight of their professional expertise, how best to attain those standards.

We've got it the wrong way round. The Government is interfering in matters which it cannot be expected to know much about, in the form of teaching philosophies, and neglecting its primary responsibility of maintaining public standards. Everyone knows why we've got "record exam results" year after year. It's to justify the Government's philosophy of education through meddling. Meanwhile, a whole generation's ability to read and think is treated as a matter of secondary importance.

Arthur C deserved better

When a great writer dies, his books are, naturally, at the forefront of consideration. But not, it seems, when a great genre writer dies. It was very odd to see, in the obituaries of Arthur C Clarke, how few of his novels seemed worth consideration. Disappointingly, only 2001: A Space Odyssey came up repeatedly, and that is only an adapted screenplay. At his best, he was a magnificent novelist. Childhood's End, in particular, imbues its thrilling subject of alien intervention with real grandeur. Ultimately, it's probably tosh, but only in the same way that The Man Who Was Thursday is ultimately tosh, and it would not be surprising to find, in the end, that Clarke contributed as much to English literature as Chesterton.

* Some people have a nerve, I must say. The Catholic Archishop of Westminster, attempting to justify his latest intervention into democratic politics, had the immortal rind yesterday to begin by referring to his church's work in Africa relating to HIV-Aids. Shall I remind him of some of his church's distinguished work in this field? Last September, the head of the Catholic church in Mozambique told his flock that condoms were deliberately infected with HIV by European factories. In 2003, Cardinal Trujillo informed the scientific world that condoms were useless in preventing infection since the virus could pass through the rubber barrier – a claim which falls squarely into the category of "blatant lie".

It is tragic that senior members of the Catholic church feel it their duty to promote death and suffering in this way. Let's examine the church's record, and decide how much we want to listen to it on any moral issue whatsoever.