Leading Article: An A for bravery, but Blunkett must do more

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The Independent Online
Each generation forms deep loves and hates for the schools and teachers it grew up with, and then inflicts its reaction on the next generation. Perhaps this is a crude but effective explanation for the pendulum swings that bedevil education policy.

A motley gathering of intelligent and idealistic young men and women, who had grown up in the restrictive school environments of the 1940s and 1950s, began themselves to take over the teaching of a new generation in the 1960s and 1970s. They instinctively and understandably abhorred the chalk-scraping, restrictive life they had themselves suffered, in which too many be-gowned and mortar-boarded teachers monotonously confronted grumpy and bored children, who had been separated at the age of 11 by a divisive examination. They refused to view those two-by-two ranks as greyly uniform (and greyly uniformed) minds, all ready for authoritarian rote-feeding. Instead, they believed, their duty was to uncork the bubbling love of learning naturally lying at the child's brimming core. And from that well-spring of inborn curiosity, knowledge and understanding would inexorably bloom.

Their view was not a particularly party political one, even though, in practice, it was usually associated with the left. But it was the fancy of the time, fuelled avidly by the psychologists, sociologists and pedagogues who most abstractly articulated its mood. For maybe 30 years, and still even today, our universities and teaching training colleges imbibed prospective teachers with an ideology which we call, for shorthand, "child-centred".

It all started honestly and innocently, as a programme for modernisation and reform, but it has ended in tears. Not the tears of the authoritarian right, which rails against progressive methods, about which we need care little - but the real tears of failed children, especially less educationally privileged ones, who have tripped off to secondary school with barely the tools to complete a coherent written paragraph, or to divide two numbers in their head.

Sometimes, over the past two decades or so, it has seemed as if teachers were the only people incapable of recognising the simple truth that too many children were being failed early in life by a schooling system that did not teach them basic and vital skills. Everyone else could see it, why not them?

Then, increasingly over the past decade, teachers began to accept the new, common-sensible wisdom - that a mixture of one-to-one teaching and front-of-class instruction made better sense than leaving children to try to find everything out for themselves. Quite why it took so long for the profession to recognise that teaching requires more structure than it was being given is hard to fathom, since it is obvious to any successful parent that nothing creates greater alarm and emotional chaos in a young child than an absence of structure and discipline, purpose and routine in their daily lives. Confusion is no frame of mind for learning, any more than monotonic tedium.

But the main reason it has taken so long is that this message to teachers has been wrapped around a nasty barb. They have been vilified, and their professionalism belittled, in the same breath in which they have been invited to accept that their teacher trainers and advisers sold them short.

For that reason, it was brave of David Blunkett, the shadow education spokesman, to stand up in front of the largest headteacher union (comprising mostly primary heads), and tell them that he, a Labour spokesman, agreed that it was time to stop the damage being wrought by outdated child-centred ideologies, and to recognise that the most important task for primary schools is to provide children with the basic tools necessary to move on to more sophisticated learning.

No amount of child-centred or one-to-one learning is going to work unless the child is able to talk and write fluently, and manipulate numbers without undue agony or inhibiting fear. Yes, children now need to be prepared for a lifetime of flexible working, in which all kinds of other skills may become even more important than spelling, or adding up. Yes, there are calculators and spellcheckers that can do most of the "basics" for them. But learning the basics is not just about mechanical skills - it is about having the confidence to hold your own, and to do it without having to ask a computer. The confident, as always, will succeed, because they will be able to ask the computer to do another, more complex task; the confused, and uncertain, will always fall behind, and the new, flexible world will be all the more frightening for them because they never quite felt footsure on the first rung.

Mr Blunkett is genuinely motivated by a desire to lift that less advantaged and less confident body of children up the scale of educational achievement, for their good, and for our own. Having taken yesterday's step, he now needs to take the next step, which is to improve the quality of teachers.

It should be obvious to anyone who has been concerned about education over the past decade and a half that too much of the argument has been about administration, and not enough about how we help teachers to be better at teaching. Good teachers need to be sure enough of their own skills and knowledge to be able to impart them to others. On that score, bluntly, too many primary teachers simply do not know enough about maths or science to teach the subjects properly. In reality, most of them already recognise that reading and writing are core skills, and devote most of their time to those skills in the early years. But they too often spend too little time on the other "basic" skills.

Mr Blunkett has spoken an important truth. He needs to show how teachers will be equipped and motivated to deliver it.