A parliamentary friend the other day gleefully recounted a conversation with an educationist. Next time you see Alan, my friend was told, "Ask him what he is for; we all know what he is against."

Typical academic bitchiness, perhaps, but nevertheless I was taken aback. It is true that, on occasions, I have spoken out forcefully against some of the fads and fashions that have spread like wildfire through the English- speaking world. Discovery learning, competence-based education and now excessive quality assurance, among other crazes, have the capacity, in my view, to do considerable damage to what is an intrinsically sound system.

But, in fact, I have strongly supported much of what the present and previous governments have been attempting to do. Recent Conservative administrations have given us a national curriculum, testing, improved inspections and financial delegation to schools. The new government has carried the restructuring forward through putting proper emphasis on literacy and numeracy, and freeing up post-14 education to allow room for, among other things, sound vocational education.

All good stuff. The reason why the criticisms seem to have been noticed more than the plaudits may have something to do with the way the media tend to operate. News is often bad news. If you are asked for an opinion and say the Government is doing a perfectly splendid job you are less likely to be quoted than if you say it has fouled up.

Such was my somewhat defensive reply to my friend. But if he had asked me to name the next three things - leaving aside finding more money - that I would be arguing for, I would have begun with nursery education. I wonder whether the Government is right to concentrate its literacy and numeracy initiatives on key stage 2. I know there is an apparent dip in performance between ages seven and nine, but this could be due to lack of sound preparation in the early years.

At present, there appear to be two competing ideas in pre-school education.

One is to allow the child's natural development to unfold, and the other is to press on as early as possible with reading and writing. But there is a third way. This is intensive preparation for learning to read and write without the "double whammy" of having to grasp ideas at the same time as acquiring the skills to represent them on paper.

Those countries, such as Hungary, which postpone the primary phase to age six, but build on excellent kindergarten preparation, tend to have better educational performance overall, less variation and a smaller gender gap then we do. That is, all children, irrespective of ability and background, get a good start which continues throughout their education. My first plea then is for the Government to take a close look at education for three-to-six-year-olds.

The second thing I would argue for is extending the urgency which has been brought to bear on improving literacy and numeracy to finding sufficient high-quality teachers. Without them many of the Government's aspirations for education are in jeopardy. The Commons select committee thought the problem so serious that it devoted its first inquiry to it. The Government's response has just been received, and very bland it is.

The Government appears to accept that there is a problem, but seems to be at a loss what to do about it. There was talk of Alec Reed of Reed Employment being called in to sort it out, but all seems to have gone very quiet on that front.

Immediate action is required, perhaps through a Task Group (yes another), to improve the supply and quality of teachers.

My third wish is to see university departments of education concentrating more on the science of teaching. A very odd thing used to happen to the expert teachers recruited to do the training. In universities their practical expertise tended to be undervalued and they were told that as they were now academics they were expected to do research. In consequence, pedagogy was often neglected and there has been the flow of trivial papers which have given educational research such a bad name.

That is less so today, but the universities still do not give schools the support they need in developing the diagnostic and teaching tools to enable all children to get as much out of education as they could. The education departments are now, however, locked into the requirements of research assessment exercises, and I would argue strongly for pedagogical development being recognised as an important criterion for judging those departments.

When I mentioned to a journalist colleague what my parliamentary friend had implied, she said, "We think of you as our `Mr Angry'." Well, that's OK - so long as it is seen as anger on behalf of the learners. It is getting the system right for them that really matters.

The writer is professor of policy research and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University.

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