Education: Personally Speaking

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The Independent Culture
SOMETHING VERY odd is happening to the idea of a national curriculum. It is being fragmented. The Conservatives' big idea is being chipped away at by a Labour government equally strident on the need to raise standards. Literacy and numeracy hours mean that all schools can pick and choose what they follow as long as they push the basics. Schools in action zones are encouraged to do their own thing. It is even being mooted that successful schools may not have to adhere to the same curriculum structures as their less successful counterparts.

What makes these moves by the Labour government interesting is the variety of ways in which they can be read. At one level it seems yet further evidence of the way in which Labour has adopted the free market, the so-called Third Way, in a manner unthinkable to the Tories. Although the Conservatives preached an enterprise culture within schools, creating an internal market of competing institutions, they always tightly controlled what went on from the centre. For the first time, they laid down exactly what had to be studied in our schools.

There is a sense in which Labour is taking such ideas to their logical conclusion. Introduce the private sector, and the curriculum will be safe in its hands.

Action zones, whereby business takes over the running of a consortium of struggling schools, have found much support from committed free marketeers such as James Tooley, formerly the director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, the right-wing think-tank. Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, is a keen supporter of the idea that successful heads should be left to their own devices. This idea found favour with Stephen Byers, who was schools minister until the summer Cabinet reshuffle.

But there is another way of interpreting the evidence. The Conservatives introduced a national curriculum because they did not trust teachers. There is plenty of evidence that the Labour government is not wholly sure of them either.

Why else would it prescribe in such minute detail what primary schoolteachers have to teach through the numeracy and literacy hours, in which the style and content of the teaching is directed down to the last minute?

Yet relaxation of the curriculum could be seen as the first tentative step towards teachers regaining some autonomy over what they teach. It allows the state sector some of the independence that private schools have enjoyed over the last 20 years. And this must be a good thing. But while the private sector has managed to avoid the constraints of national curriculum testing, there is no suggestion that opting out of the curriculum will mean opting out of tests for state schools.

And it is this tension between Labour's desire to dictate and the desire to liberate which may well produce the most damaging consequences to the kind of education children receive in the future. Those in the educational establishment who first mooted the idea of a national curriculum did so less from the sense that teachers needed controlling and more from the conviction that all children were entitled to a fair deal, to a broad and balanced curriculum.

That it was the Tories who pushed this idea, and that it should be Labour which is undoing it, is one of the great ironies of the current muddle of educational policy.

The real dilemma is that Labour does not have a vision of education beyond mere economic necessity and no view of the intrinsic value of learning beyond an acquisition of basic skills.

Dismantling a national curriculum, while still insisting on the narrow tests that accompany it for 7, 11 and 14-year-olds, may simply mean that struggling schools will spend more time teaching to test to improve their position in the league tables.

Their confident counterparts have time to experiment with more adventurous approaches to education, while the schools which most need to innovate will feel pressure to be conservative. The very children who would benefit from a broad and balanced curriculum may well be the ones who are denied it.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer in education at King's College London

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