John Crane replies to Andrew Starkie

Is it with great interest that I read the article entitled ‘Lost Tools of Learning’ by Andrew Starkie in the March issue of New Directions. I’m delighted that he has raised the issue of ‘Education’ within these pages.

Purpose of Education

Listening to politicians or talking to parents of school children the popular view is that the purpose of education is to equip children to become employable when they become adults. ‘He needs to work at school so that he can get a good job’ is a frequent lament of parents during consultation evenings. While this is indeed an important part of education, I do not believe that it is the most important. Firstly, education is an end in itself. The main reason for education is education – the thirst for knowledge and self-improvement. The second purpose of education is to teach children how to think. As a teacher I frequently tell children that I am not interested in the answer that they think I want – tell me what you think and why you think it. If children can think for themselves and have a desire to learn for the sake of learning then they have no boundaries. These children are the creators of our future.

Traditional vs Modern

‘More and more canny primary teachers are ignoring the advice of the government’s National Literacy Strategy and are instead teaching children to read using phonics from the first year, ditching the flawed “sight-reading” dogma of the 1970s.’

This is not the place for the debate about real books over phonics. However, it needs to be pointed out that the National Literacy Strategy takes a phonics approach to reading. In schools we now have reading recovery programmes, Additional Literacy Support and Early Literacy Support, both of the latter having phonics at their root as a means of teaching children to read and of developing their writing ability. The National Literacy Strategy was introduced by the current government partly as a response to the ‘sight-reading’ dogma of the 1970s. I believe that we have a lot to thank the ‘sight-reading’ dogma for.

Out of the ‘sight-reading’ dogma grew the use of ‘real books’ – that is books that mean something. No one would want to see a return to Janet and John books that make as much sense backwards as forwards. The 1970s were far from an educational disaster: firstly, they taught a lot of children to read (including me), and secondly they taught a generation to think for themselves.

Andrew Starkie seems to be advocating a return to traditional teaching – children sitting in rows, grammar schools, strict discipline, and many labelled as failures. He quotes Rachel Boutonnet as saying that ‘The best thing is to ask a lot of them’. Sarah Marsden, the Head of the Primary School at the top of the value added league table, herself wrote in The Times Educational Supplement that the reason for their success was an approach of ‘unlimited positivity’, and one that involved ‘more carrot than stick’. I have a geography degree and remember my grandfather trying to catch me out on capital cities of the world. Geography in today’s schools is more likely to focus on children generating arguments for a local planning issue than memorizing a few capital cities. History, always a political subject, used to be remembering dates. Today children are encouraged to think about how we know, and consider who wrote the history. When I was at school learning your times tables by rote was considered enough. That is not the case now. Children now not only need to know that 6×8=48, but also why 6×8=48. Schools now are encouraged to have ‘School Councils’ where children take control of their learning and environment. I suggest that all of these examples show that modern schools are better places for teaching children how to think than the traditional methods that Andrew Starkie craves. Jane Hattett, the Head of the Secondary School at the top of the value added league tables, said that their position should ‘restore faith in the comprehensive system that I’ve always believed in.’

Education and the Church

The centre of this debate would seem to be how we as Christians are going to educate our children in the future to ensure that they are taught the faith while at the same time being taught how to think, appreciating education for its own end and having the academic skills to compete in the workplace. I enjoyed some of the happiest years of my teaching career in a Roman Catholic Primary School. In Roman Schools the Head and Deputy have to be practising members of the Roman Catholic Church. Here the children were taught the faith. Is this true of all Church of England Schools? We would all like to think that it is, but probably know better. The reasons for this are numerous, but the question remains: what are we to do? I would like to suggest two possible courses of action (although I’m not sure if either would work and would like to hear others). Option one would be for churches within a ‘Free Province’ to take a greater interest in church schools within their parish, making sure that a Forward in Faith approved RE syllabus was taught in these school. Funding for these schools would need further debate. Option two would be for a ‘Free Province’ to set up its own schools that would be fee paying. This creates lots of ethical issues about education for all. There would again need to be further debate on other funding streams for these schools in conjunction with assisted places.

Now that the debate is open let us start thinking about how we are going to bring up our children within or outside the church education system. It is important for our children to grow up knowing that there are other faiths, and to respect other’s rights to differ in matters of religion. I would also like my children to know about other religions and what they teach. However, I also want them to realize that this is not our faith, or what we believe. We are sometimes guilty of expecting our children to ‘pick up’ the faith as they go along. To guarantee our future we need to ensure that the faith – our faith – is actively taught.

John Crane is Deputy Head Teacher at a School in Essex