Liz Truss’ successful visit to China was the latest in a long series of Conservative efforts to return education to its proper purpose after years of ignoring and excluding evidence that did not fit the progressive blueprint. In the early nineties, class teaching in primary schools had come so close to elimination that HMI were sent to France to re-learn how to do it. The current prevalence of small writing boards – still known in some French schools as “ardoises”, slates – in our primary schools dates from this visit. These allow a teacher to set a task to the whole class, and then see at a glance how well all of the children have managed it.
The example I saw on a recent visit was a dictation lesson for six-year-olds based on the sentence – “Arthur n’a pas peur des fantômes”. (Arthur is not frightened of ghosts). It would be hard to see an English teacher doing this even now, but the children took their time and quite enjoyed it.
Exactly how our current state of affairs arose puzzled me for the whole of the time I worked for local authorities, as I just couldn’t see the logic behind what people were doing. As a reading specialist, for example, I noticed that boys liked to read non-fiction books, and would make what seemed to me the obvious point that teachers needed to get to know children’s non-fiction as well as many of them knew children’s fiction.
I would be met with patronising smiles – no-one would overtly disagree, but neither did they take any notice. A fine effort by my friends Bobbie Neate and Sue Palmer to include non-fiction in a reading scheme – the Longman’s Book Project – had five minutes in the sun, then disappeared.
Why? And why did my maths colleagues gently mock my efforts to teach children basic arithmetic, when it was obvious that this was what they needed – my first “pupil” was an adult who needed to pass the maths test for entry to the police force, and didn’t understand percentages.
The answer, as so often, lay in a quotation from Anthony Crosland. Asked about the importance of research, he replied that it was tempting to him, as an academic, to base his work on research evidence, but that it could not be allowed to set his priorities. Lady Plowden had taken a similar view of research showing mixed ability teaching to be less effective than streaming – the evidence was available, but “not conclusive”.
The problem the progressives have with research is that it looks objectively at what children know, understand and can do, with the assumption that progress in these areas is the goal of education. If your goals are not achievement, but “inclusion” and “equality”, then evidence is the weapon of your opponents, and you must turn to politics – rhetoric – to defeat them. A prominent current example is the verbiage deployed against the research on phonics, whose results are as close to conclusive as educational research can ever be.
So, however effective the Chinese or Singaporean approach to maths may be shown to be, it will meet progressive opposition if it tends to show that the calculation skills it incorporates enable some children to work more effectively than others. Substitute problem solving for skills, and ignore the fact that knowledge enables children to solve problems more quickly and efficiently, and you immediately sound more enlightened in your thinking – good rhetorical technique.
Teach a seven year old her two times table rather than have her count in multiples, and you can easily be made to look small-minded, even if the alternative is to have to teach the two times table to eleven-year-olds, an expedient to which Labour’s strategies were reduced by their own folly.
Given our opponents’ domination of university departments of education – until recently one of the worst was in charge of all doctoral research in a major university – it is not surprising that the best ways of teaching arithmetic have been neglected, or that the humble topic of multiplication tables has received no attention whatsoever. As the Blob does not control the internet, I’ve put my own – so far, successful – attempts to teach them on my site and they’ve been published in The School Run. If you are a governor, or if your children don’t know their tables, I’ll be happy to help.