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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.

I am, much of the time, a tutor, the least prestigious role in education. Real teachers work in classrooms, teach 30 pupils, and handle the discipline. Anybody can teach just one. Tutors were once known as “crammers”, tasked with getting their pupils through examinations that were designed to weed them out. Stretching a point, I often think of Churchill’s comment on Robert Somervell, “- a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great – who was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing – namely, to write mere English.” Churchill was retained in his small class for three years. Who among us could claim as much as to have taught Churchill to compose an English sentence?

Somervell’s approach was based on complete understanding of his subject and the ability to present it clearly to the pupils before him, in his case using various colours of ink. This is the characteristic of all good tutors – knowledge, combined with understanding of points of difficulty, and explanation in terms that make sense to the pupil. They need to find the answer to two questions – “What is it in this person’s thinking that is preventing them from learning in this instance?”, and, “How do I enable them to adjust their thinking in order to do so? The answer to neither question will come off the shelf. There are usually many more ways of misunderstanding something than of understanding it, and an explanation that makes sense to one pupil will very often depend on their knowing something that another does not.

This is where Labour botched its introduction of individual tuition. Instead of training tutors to teach the pupils in front of them, it issued a massive handbook, written by people who had never seen their pupils – or any others, I sometimes thought – telling them what to do. So, a ten-year-old whom I had just started to teach, was given fruitless tuition on the 7x table, probably the most difficult, when she had not mastered the 2x table, probably the easiest. Experience with previous pupils had taught me that the problem was one of coordination rather than maths, and led me to teach the 2x with great care, if necessary half at a time, and then to use this as a template for the others. It worked.

Similar and more expensive errors have been made with reading.

In 1966, the late Dame Marie Clay carried out research in Auckland, New Zealand, that showed clear differences between the thinking of successful six-year-old readers, and those who were struggling. She collected the techniques used by those whom she thought were the best teachers in the city, and turned them into a handbook for the scheme that became Reading Recovery. Some of these techniques – eg “Hearing the sounds in words” – are useful, but the scheme was hamstrung by rigid adherence to this handbook, and dogged resistance to all attempts to include phonics.

In the training I observed, teachers were not allowed to make a suggestion that was not already in the handbook. The result, despite much propaganda to the contrary, was that the scheme failed to live up to its promises except in Hackney, where the local authority, The Learning Trust, did not insist that teachers stick to the handbook.

In fairness to Reading Recovery and Labour’s strategies, the same principle probably applies to any handbook. Teachers, like members of other professions, are paid to think, and any attempt to do their thinking for them – as some particularly authoritarian heads have – will fail, because these people do not know the pupils and the teacher does. This is not to argue against structures or textbooks, but rather to say that the teacher needs to be in control of the way they are used. They are in constant touch with what is and is not working, in a way that no-one else can be.

Tutors are in this position more than any other teacher, as our close focus on an individual pupil gives us a more complete picture of their thinking, making our work a test bed for progress. An example from yesterday comes from a 14-year-old who had not begun to learn to read until it was identified that she was sensitive to light, causing headaches and words to appear to move about. She is making very good progress in reading, but is learning to spell virtually from scratch, and had the classic problem of mistaking “b” for “d” – in writing, but not in reading.

The established way of tackling this, derived from the work of Grace Fernald, is through handwriting, ensuring that “d” is formed as an extension of “a”, and not as a ball on a stick. This didn’t help, but something I’d noticed from teaching the “v” sound in Spanish – pronounced more lightly than our “b” – did. When we say “boy”, we press our lips fairly tightly together to release the “b”. When we say “dad”, we touch our tongue to our top palate, just above our teeth. Saying the word to herself, and feeling whether the sound was made with lips or tongue gave her a reliable way of picking the correct letter.

I’d never have found this if I’d been teaching her in a class. I recently had an email from Robert Somervell’s grandson, Tony, who appreciated the reminder of Churchill’s tribute to his grandfather on my website. I would have enjoyed meeting him, but I like to think that the spirit of what he did continues, in the work of tutors.

8 comments for: John Bald: What teachers can learn from tutors

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