Monday, June 16, 2008

Column, October 9, 2007

“GIVE me the boy until he is seven and I will give you the man.”
So said the founder the Jesuit order, St Ignatius Loyola, knowing that a good bit of indoctrination when young will lead to lifelong, unquestioning faith.
And it worked for him, or rather the Catholic Church, so why not try it elsewhere, such as in schools?
That seems to the philosophy that holds saw in the Department of Education , beg pardon, Department for Children, Schools and Families (at least that’s what it is until the next reshuffle)
The Government stands accused of an ‘obscene rush’ to get children producing academic work.
So which bunch of lentil-eating, anti-establishment, drop-outs would make such a charge?
The National Primary Headteachers’ Association that’s who – so, basically, the women and men who are running primary education then. A group that any politician with an interest in leaving a legacy that lasts further than the next election date would do well to pay heed.
The NPHA said that play-based learning had all but disappeared when children entered Year 1 – the year after reception class – and warned that some children with summer birthdays would only just have turned five when they are being expected to engage in formal academic learning.
The NPHA wants play-based learning extended until children are at least six.
Now the old-fashioned 3Rs never-did-me-any-harm brigade out there might have a sharp intake of breath at the thought of children playing in class or play having anything to do with learning.
All the evidence from studies in European countries is that children do better academically if formal teaching is delayed until six or seven actually boosts academic performance later in life.
But for whatever reason our schools are locked into this system of one year of playful introduction then that’s enough messing about, time to get your head down and don’t you dare look up from your books until you’ve passed you A-levels.
I wouldn’t mind so much if the Scandinavians were the simpletons of Europe, constantly laughed at for their uneducated ways, pointing at aeroplanes and using their fingers to count etc.
Ever met a stupid Swede? No, me neither, and to think I had three years head-start in my schooling.
But the problem is that the attitude still prevails among politicians and, it has to be said, a fair number of parents, is that children’s heads are empty vessels to be filled up and the sooner you start filling it up the better.
I know pushy parents who are signing their children up to learn viola when their child is still sucking a dummy.
Parents and politicians will say they are preparing the child for the tough competition they face in life, but the sad fact is that they are not.
Education is not a matter of filling up a child’s brain like it was a jug. Of course, you can stand at the front of a class and list the dates from 1066 to the Moon landing and eventually some of it will stick.
But when that child enters the workplace what will they actually be able to do other than list dates? Handy for trivia quizzes but not much else.
If you accept the view that education is more than lists of facts, but that it is helping a child to learn to think, then all the research says that play-based, co-operative learning is what will achieve the best results.
It’s the old Chinese proverb – hear and forget, see and remember, do and understand. So are our schools teaching memory or understanding?
The Department of Children, Schools and Families is adamant that the formal school starting age of five has served children well for decades and that standards in primary schools have never been higher.
Of course, this might have something to do with the fact that government tied funding to performance in SATS tests and head teachers got very good at shovelling their children through the tests to make sure they could buy books next year.
Who said that five is the optimum age to start learning? The fact that it’s been going on for decades means that it was decided a long time ago when we knew far less about just how a child learns.
But this, once again, is an area where Wales’s fledgling government has broken free from its larger neighbour and followed a more enlightened path.
Wales did away with the evil of SATS some time ago and they have pointed out to the government’s review of primary education that in Wales, play-based foundation stage learning goes on until the age of seven.
Round the fringes of Wales this will lead to friction where parents will compare the play-based schooling of their children to the formal drilling going on in their English neighbours.
It’s natural to be concerned if you think your child is falling behind, but given that Wales is only doing what’s been working for years in Europe, then I think those fears are misplaced.

WAY back in the mists if time I spent a year working at a radio station.
They wisely did not let me near a microphone, I was a back-room boy, typing out bulletins for the DJs to read.
Then one day they decided to have a phone-in debate about the aftermath of the closure of Shotton steelworks, but the phones remained resolutely silent.
Eventually the station manager sidled over and suggested I get on the blower and pretend to be Mr Angry of Deeside. Fortunately for the listening public the news arrived and they were saved from my ill-formed thoughts on the subject.
But what if I had got on? Would Ofcom be inquiring into the faking of this segment, would there be apologies all round.
If it had been a BBC station, which it wasn’t, then the answer is a definite yes.
The BBC seems to have lost the ability to decide what is badly misleading (editing the Queen to make her look like she was in a strop) and what is inconsequential nonsense (the name of the Blue Peter cat).
So it’s apologising for everything. And now a Who Do You Think You Are episode featuring Carol Vorderman appears to have played fast and loose with strict accuracy, unbeknownst to the Countdown star, in getting a shop assistant to ‘recognise’ a photo she had never seen before.
Seeing as sorry seems to be the easiest word at the Beeb I await their donning of yet more sackcloth and ashes in due course.

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