Schools need much more than money

Chris Woodhead argues that his criticism of educational values is not party political
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The Independent Online
Education is top of the political agenda, the most important and most contested of our public services. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that my pamphlet A Question of Standards has been viewed as a controversial contribution to party political debate.

Controversial it may be; party political it is not. My aim throughout is to identify the issues and to explore the arguments, not to plump for particular solutions. Take, for example, the role of the local education authority. On the one hand, we have headteachers such as Brian Sherratt of Great Barr GM School in Birmingham who argue that LEAs inevitably create a dependency culture that militates against the exercise of confident leadership. On the other, we have the Labour Party's statement that LEAs have "an essential role in helping struggling schools, providing advice and support - and intervening to raise standards".

Given this clash of views, I argue that we need to know more about how LEAs are working with schools to raise standards. Have we really sunk to such a state of intellectual and political insecurity that anyone can seriously argue that to raise these questions is in itself to display a political view?

Neither is there anything remotely political in the question that lies at the heart of my pamphlet - what can be done to improve the quality of teaching in our schools?

There is cross-party agreement that headteachers and governors must do more to root out bad teaching. It is not, however, solely a matter of dealing with a small minority of incompetent teachers. Standards of teaching generally need to be raised. Many primary teachers do not have a secure enough grasp of the academic knowledge, understanding and skills they are now required to teach. We have to restore a belief in the teacher as an authority who knows more than his pupils and who has a responsibility to teach.

We must do everything possible to ensure that fewer children leave primary school unable, or barely able, to read and write. There is no reason why the vast majority of children cannot learn to read by the age of seven.

Is it, though, all a matter of resourcing? If this or any future government was to provide more money for education, would standards necessarily rise? To reply that they would not is not to dismiss resources as unimportant: it is simply to assert the common-sense truth that effective teaching depends, critically, upon the teachers knowing enough and caring enough about their subject, having high expectations of their children and being willing and able to employ a range of different teaching strategies as they pursue different curricular objectives. Good teachers may be able to teach even better when they have 20 children rather than 30 in their class; but there is absolutely no reason to believe that it is the size of class that makes a bad teacher bad.

Ultimately, what matters most in raising educational standards is the culture in which teachers work. Do we as a nation care enough about education? Is education about "reading, writing, spelling and sums, great literature ... British history, a proper grounding in science"? Or is it about the "need to produce learners who can think critically, synthesise and transform, experiment and create?"

The first quotation is from the Prime Minister, the second from a professor of education. Of course, we want and need both. But we have to recognise that far too many young people continue to leave school functionally illiterate, with a record of under-achievement that reaches back into primary school.

The ability to think critically is important, but there are more basic skills that must be mastered first. The emphasis, moreover, on critical thought can militate against the intellectual virtues that the philosopher Michael Oakeshott characterised as "disinterested curiosity, patience, honesty, exactness, concentration and doubt".

We need to rediscover our confidence in such virtues, to recognise that education is a transaction between the generations in which the young are initiated into knowledge and understanding that they would not otherwise acquire, and to regain our belief in teaching as something more than the facilitating of pupil learning.

Are such arguments political? Are they even very controversial?

The writer is Chief Inspector of Schools in England.