John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
In the early nineties, when the late Emily Blatch was Schools Minister, I ran a pilot course for teaching assistants for the Department for Education. Innovative features included a centrally-produced handbook, teaching provided by the participating schools, and ultra-lean overheads, that allowed us to provide a year’s training for one-third of the average cost of other pilots (under £400 per student, against £1,230). Admin was my desktop computer; a maths colleague and I checked the schools’ assessments; and the course was externally assessed by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools and Middlesex University.
Each unit had a structured tutorial, followed by an activity in which the ideas presented were tried out with a pupil the assistant was supporting. Over the year, they built up a series of records of the pupil’s progress, with particular emphasis on literacy, maths and individual needs. The outcome was graded good by HMI, with particular strengths in reading, writing and using computers, and the academic assessor rated our assistants’ performance as better than that of his own first-year students. In some cases this was not surprising – one assistant had five A grades at A level – but those who started with GCSE grade C in English and maths reached similar standards. The course, in short, provided genuine higher education, based in school.
I was reminded of this in my current work as a tutor, which involves a weekly lesson, in person or over the internet, with a parent sitting in. The work is based, as far as possible, on the materials the pupil is working on at school, and I can focus exclusively on what each child is having trouble with, and on enabling them to adjust their thinking so that they can learn effectively. The parent, usually the child’s mother, is there to tell me things I need to know or may not have noticed. Seeing the teaching techniques for themselves also allows parents to reply to children’s questions and errors as I do, with the focus on getting behind the error to adjust the thinking that caused it.
Parents and teachers usually come to me when all normal channels have failed, and I have the luxury of working with each individual for as long as I need to. Their teachers and support services don’t, and under current conditions almost never get the chance to spend an extended period of time with an individual child. Neither do they get this opportunity in their training. In practice, the only people who spend time with children on an individual basis are assistants, and they are rarely trained to do it. Special needs co-ordinators are so beleaguered with paperwork that they have little time to teach the children themselves, let alone train anyone else to do so.
So, I have a modest proposal. Each training course, whether in school or university, and including Teach First, should include a study of work with an individual child, carried out over at least two terms. The child need not be experiencing difficulty – it would be just as valuable to work with one who was exceptionally able, or indeed of average ability for the school. The pupils would benefit from this concentrated attention, but the trainee teacher would benefit even more, by close observation of how an individual approached the task of learning, where strengths and misconceptions started, and how to foster the former and reduce the latter. There is nothing like this first-hand experience to help teachers develop professional judgement, and a critical attitude to people who pretend to know better than they do, whether they be professional politicians or progressive political theorists.
An example of the first error is the presentation of phonics after Labour became convinced that it was the best way to teach early reading. They spoiled it, as they spoiled nearly everything they did, by buying into an authoritarian approach that suggested that phonics were the whole story, which they are not. In English, one letter can indicate several sounds, such as o in not, no, something and do. To read these words, we need to know what the letter is indicating in each of them, and English speakers develop a specialised area of their brain in order to do this.
Failing readers, like two I am teaching at the moment, too often think that they can sound out every word one letter at a time, because they think that that is what their teacher wants . The solution is to explain, in terms children can understand, that we don’t have many letters, and that they need to work together. I’ve discussed this in more detail on my site.
The errors of progressive theorists began with John Dewey’s rejection of knowledge as the basis of education, and reached a peak in Lady Plowden’s rejection of evidence in favour of grouping children according to their abilities and learning needs in 1967. In my home territory of modern languages, this error has led to imposing mixed ability teaching against teachers’ professional judgement, and with no evidence that it works. Trying to adapt teaching to this impossible situation has led language teaching into crisis and many teachers to despair. The government, and pioneering schools like Mossbourne and Michaela, have started to reverse the decline, but it will take a long time.
Since I started teaching in 1973, I have seen nonsense backed by authority prevail time and again over professional judgement and common sense. It needs to stop, and one step in stopping it would be to give trainee teachers much more experience of working with individual children, so that they learn to focus on the person in front of them, and not on what someone else tells them to do.