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Nil Points for Thinking Skills of Former Labour Political Strategist

Civitas, 18 August 2009

Peter Hyman was a political strategist to Tony Blair between 1994 and 2003.  He is now the deputy head of a London comprehensive. In last Sunday’s Observer, he correctly identifies what’s fundamentally wrong with state schooling, but then proposes a remedy that will only make matters worse. What is that prevents Labour Party supporters like him being able to think straight thinking about education? I wish I knew.

Hyman rightly says that ‘the annual debate about whether exams are too easy or too hard misses the point — which is whether the exams test the rights sort of thing.’

To determine what pupils should be tested on, he argues, we need to identify first what skills we want them to acquire by the time they leave school. The qualities and skills Hyman believes that schools should be focussing on developing in their pupils are said to be: ‘critical thinking, analysis, public speaking, reflection, leadership, independence, [and] love of reading’.

I can go along with all this, although love of reading is less a skill than a sentiment.  But then we get the big non sequitor that always seems to afflict Labour Party thinking about education.

Hyman argues the best way schools can go about instilling these skills and qualities is to introduce a new ‘critical thinking skills curriculum’ similar to the one that he has just spent several months devising with his colleagues.

What Hyman entirely fails to explain is why an old-fashioned subject-based curriculum cannot foster all these skills?

We know by now that, when introduced, the National Curriculum was far too detailed and prescriptive. We also know that the appalling testing regime that accompanied it has had a very deleterious impact on teaching and learning. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with the notion that the subjects it prescribed, when introduced, were perfectly suitable vehicles for fostering the skills and qualities Hyman wants schoolchildren to leave school with.

Why do they or we need a new subject or area of thinking ‘critical thinking’ by which to develop these skills, as if the other subjects cannot do so?

It’s true they cannot, as they presently have to be taught. But what that calls for are educational reforms that make them able to be. What it doesn’t call for are yet more new subjects that only further reduce the time available for the old ones.

Hyman wants schools to instil in their pupils critical thinking, analysis, reflection and independence. Well, he hasn’t exhibited much of any of these to me. He’s just spinning in the wind to enable his party continue to avoid facing up to the terrible mess it has made of education and what needs to be done to clear it up.

The first and vital step is to instate a proper academic curriculum. That needs supplementing by ensuring that only properly qualified teachers teach it. This may require having to pay properly qualified teachers a market rate for the job, if there are shortages in certain areas like science. It also means restoring their ability to teach by allowing them to exclude, permanently if necessary, disruptive pupils.

The rest is silence… the silence that descends upon a classroom when the children it contains are absorbed in their studies. Of course, there should be time for discussion and debate. But if children are to be taught to think, analyse and reflect, as Hyman claims he want them to be, then they need to be set tasks that demand and produce silence in class.

It is a long time since it was last heard in all too many state schools.

I doubt if it shall be heard for a very long time in Hyman’s or in any other state schools, if they are made to follow the curriculum path on which he wishes to take them.

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