Leading Article: The teachers will not take lessons from Blunkett

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The Independent Online
David Blunkett is in danger of slipping into a very alluring trap - the not uncommon ministerial delusion that you can transform Britain's schools by exhorting teachers to do what you think is right. Strange that one of Labour's most estimable and politically sensitive ministers should be so misled; but the signs are unmistakable.

The overwhelming majority of teachers are deeply committed to their work, and urgently want their children to succeed. But they have very firm views about what they believe are the best ways of making progress. At training colleges and on teaching practice they learn ways of managing classrooms and learning programmes, and then they go into a classroom, and for the rest of their teaching lives they are more or less on their own. For most, classroom autonomy is greatly treasured, and with some justice: we all know that the best teachers are those who develop their own unique style, and are allowed to get on with it in the way they know best. But not all teachers, by definition, are among the best. In truth, most primary teachers are brilliant at tending and caring for their charges, but many are considerably less good at teaching them, either because they know too little, or because they afflict themselves with ineffective methods.

It is these teachers - the average ones in the middle who initially found the national curriculum too much - who protested that they need more time to teach the basics, and so needed to be released from the remainder of the new national curriculum. Mr Blunkett, who wants (indeed, has pledged) a steep rise in children's performance in the basics, has portrayed his relaxation of the national curriculum as an answer to teachers' earlier appeals.

The net effect of all this is likely to be confusion which, far from raising performance in the basics, may actually stifle the improved performance currently under way. Yesterday morning on Radio 4 one teacher interpreted this move as an imposition of required hours teaching the three Rs in an offensively traditional way. Mr Blunkett does not want that to happen. Then the teacher unions interpreted his move as a delightful relief of the pressure on teachers, which is also not what Mr Blunkett intended. But no matter. He will be misunderstood by some, and understood by others. Some will resent his intervention, and others will feel that he has signed up to the "back to basics" crusade.

The point about learning the basics, as Mr Blunkett knows very well, and the teacher unions sensibly agree, is that no-one learns anything very much unless they have the tools. It is perfectly possible for all normally adept children to acquire "the basics" (functional literacy and numeracy) by the middle of their junior school, so long as the attention given to learning them is consistent, applied, and that it happens every day in a methodical manner.

We could get badly side-tracked if teachers interpret this latest government move as an excuse to return to boring lessons. The biggest single problem with most primary lessons is that the children find them uninspiring and unchallenging. One reason is that they are not given work that progresses from one task to a higher level task. Another is that there is still too much superficial project work and charming but undemanding group arts work. A third is that children in too many schools still spend too much time sitting in groups round tables supposedly working together, but actually distracting each other. Worse (as was pointed out in a different context yesterday) too many primary schools fill children's ears full of utterly unscientific nonsense, particularly about subjects like the environment, thinking they are imparting fundamental social values.

The way to change all this is to turn mediocre teachers into good ones by showing them that their old ways do not really work, and are often more tiring and time-consuming than they need to be. They will not take that from a Secretary of State, however upstanding they think he is. Nor will they take it from professors, and authorities, however important and well-researched their papers are. They will only take it from their immediate colleagues and superiors. And they, in turn, will only learn it from their peers. Improve heads' understanding of what works, and you enable them to improve their teachers. Improve teachers, and you raise standards. The best way to achieve this might be to identify 250 top quality primary schools that are doing all the (very various) right things, and ensure that every other head and deputy head goes to see how they succeed. A version of this is happening in some degree, as inspectors carry good practice around with them from school to school. Replicate good practice, and standards will rise. No amount of exhortation will ever match that the evidence of teachers' own eyes.