Leading Article: All change places, please

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PENDULUMS swing, nowhere more than in the education world. Attitudes that were regarded as radical and progressive yesterday can fairly be regarded as traditional today. The argument about primary teaching methods is bedevilled by the mistaken notion that whole-class instruction, teaching by subjects, and grouping pupils by ability, are traditional methods, and that 'learning by doing' is somehow more progressive. In fact, there is a strong case for arguing that the advice tendered to the Government yesterday by the National Curriculum Council is the modern approach, and that the teaching-by-topic, individualised learning methods still used by many primary teachers are out of date. Education professors - usually regarded as inveterate progressives - have been recommending many of these improvements for the past two decades.

After leaving training college, primary teachers are immersed in their classrooms. They only occasionally have the time or inclination to raise their eyes from the important task in hand. The introduction of the national curriculum forced them to look closely at their work, but it has also left many of them overburdened and confused.

Teachers should therefore welcome the Government's decision to review the national curriculum on a predictable rolling programme. The curriculum was devised by working parties set up to look at each subject separately. They had little regard for the enterprise as a whole, and so piled in everything they considered valuable. Only now, with all 10 subjects in place, is it possible to survey this grand creation. While the principle of a national curriculum has been vindicated, the practice has serious flaws. Too many of the learning targets are blandly imprecise, and there are far too many of them.

However, teachers must recognise that even a slimmed-down curriculum will require more rigorous teaching methods. If they are honest with themselves, primary teachers know that it is not possible to lump all the necessary knowledge and skills of the national curriculum into all-embracing topics. They also know that, as the curriculum becomes more demanding towards the upper end of primary school, their own subject knowledge is too thin. Subject teaching by specialists need not be dull and dry, as many teachers fear; it is usually more challenging and inspiring to be taught by someone who is enthusiastic and confident in their field. Of course it will be difficult for the thousands of small rural primary schools to embrace this advice, but they may be able to share specialist teachers with nearby schools.

Union leaders allege that the Government's hidden purpose is to reintroduce selection. Nonsense. The council's report merely recommends grouping pupils by ability within classes, which is already routine in many primary schools. But the unions have also registered a more proper anxiety: ministers, not satisfied with telling schools what to teach, are now telling them how to teach. This trend needs to be watched. As it stands, however, Mr Patten's powers are limited. On this occasion he is using them to influence teachers for the better. He is belatedly realising that none of the Government's reforms will make a lasting difference unless the quality of teachers improves: their training must move to the head of the agenda.