Give schools time to think : LEADING ARTICLE

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The Independent Online
PERHAPS teaching children is so inherently difficult that a kind of madness besets those who are charged with the task, either in the classroom or, by remote control, in the education office or Whitehall department. Certainly, the frenzy with whi ch successive theories are advocated suggests as much. But every now and again it is discovered that something works. Take the "reading recovery" scheme which the Government imported from New Zealand after prompting from the Labour Party. To most people outsideeducational politics it sounds like a simple idea. Six-year-olds who are lagging behind in their reading are given half-an-hour individual tuition every school day for 16 weeks by a highly trained teacher. It worked in New Zealand, and it worked here, after the Government gave selected local authorities the funds to try it out. Expensive? Of course. But the cost for each child is less than the cost of administration alone for any child who is declared, in our ever-expanding educational jargon an d bureaucracy, to require a "statement" of its special needs. So will the scheme now sweep the country? Will ministers throttle their Treasury colleagues until they cough up the funds? On the contrary. The reading recovery scheme, after a three-year experiment, will get no further funding from central government.

There is plenty wrong with the nation's schools, but much more is wrong with the people who try to make policy for them. Headless chickens is the wrong description, since such creatures can do little harm; lobotomised rogue elephants would be a better metaphor. Last week, the country was given the results of national curriculum tests. It was informed that a third of 14-year-olds and nearly a quarter of seven-year-olds were failing to meet "targets". What does this mean? Chris Woodhead, the Ch ief Inspector of Schools, called them "disappointing" and the Daily Telegraph incited parents to "raise Cain". Yet the "targets" were originally set as examples of what an average or typical child should achieve; if well under half failed, it could be pr esented as a triumph. The truth is that nobody has the faintest idea what it all means. If schools were given clear and consistent targets, they could work towards them. But the Government has persistently changed the targets; nearly a decade ago, it had an entirely different system for measuring standards but abandoned it just as it was showing results.

This is typical of how education has been run nearly 20 years. Imagine that McDonald's was asked to sell fast food one year, then told it must switch to cordon bleu the next, and to vegetarian dishes the year after that. This is roughly what has happenedto schools, yet ministers wonder why they are confused and inefficient. The call goes out for sex education lest children get Aids, for health and diet education lest children get fat or toothless, for drugs education (to which the money has been switched from the reading recovery scheme) lest they become junkies, for religious education lest they become godless, for multiracial and anti-racist education lest they become neo-Nazis. Demands as to how history or maths should be taught change almost annually; like the books of the Old Testament, the numerous learned reports on maths teaching can be used to support almost anything you like. Schools are told to act as go-getting businesses, wooing parental custom. They a re also told to act as social agencies, alert to signs of child abuse and family breakdown. Heads were once told to be academic leaders; now, they have to act as accountants and fund-raisers. For a decade or more, every guru in the land has been explaini ng how knowledge has exploded, howany information you absorb will soon be outdated and how learning skills (information retrieval and the rest) are all that matter. Last week, Mr Woodhead was berating teachers who believe that "the teaching of knowledge must be less important than the development of skills". He was also demanding "moral and intellectual authority" from teachers. Yet people like him have been telling everybody for years that teachers are idle, ill-trained, ignorant incompetents.

Deafened by advice and instruction, teachers are now so beaten and demoralised that they will do almost anything they are told. They will teach that pigs fly or that Winston Churchill is alive and well in Buenos Aires if so commanded. They need consistent aims and a recognition that they cannot do what everybody wants all of the time. No doubt people will still be disappointed. They always will be until a government chooses to spend on state school children something approaching what Tory ministers, from their supposedly meagre incomes, spend in school fees for their own children.