Christopher Price: Johnson has to be true to English traditions

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Suddenly the prospects for developing intelligent policy in education seem positive. The iron grip of Downing Street is weakening. In Alan Johnson we have an Education Secretary who is his own man and unlikely ever to become a creature of any prime minister; and, if Gordon Brown succeeds next year, Downing Street will have less legitimacy to dictate English education policy.

Gordon will probably be content to see English schools edging towards the sort of sensible professionalism and pragmatism that the Scots adopted long ago. Sensing this, the National Union of Teachers has produced a paper, "Bringing Down Barriers", which advocates a gradual withdrawal from the centralist approach of the past nine years.

This was accompanied by alien, aggressive language - "driving up" standards, "delivering" change, eliminating "failing" schools - which was fine for political manifestos, but destructive of morale in schools and colleges.

Even if there have been improvements over nine years of Labour government, many teachers, parents and pupils do not recognise them through the haze of regulation and policy direction deemed necessary for their achievement. So, if Alan Johnson is to achieve gradual change, what should replace aggressive centralism as the impetus for improving standards? His greatest difficulty will be the depressing reality that there is no agreed template in England about what improved "standards" consist of.

As more young people go on to higher education, the media annually denigrate their achievements. Exams are getting too easy. Plagiarism is rife. Too many students are doing media studies. There ought to be more vocational courses. Such articles say more about their authors than they do about educational standards. For this, ministers bear a large responsibility. They are the consequence of their cowardice in rejecting the Tomlinson report (while pretending to have modernising policies).

The effect was to consecrate A-levels as some sort of eternal gold standard when the economy is demanding a far flatter pyramid of educational qualifications. Alan Johnson's best chance of raising standards should be to change ministerial language. He should state that governments do not create change - they only prepare the soil in which it can happen; and also that there are many elements over which governments, administrators and teachers have little control such as developments in technology and the swings and roundabouts of demography and immigration.

Accordingly, he should put greater effort into improving teacher morale and encouraging student aspiration. Much educational progress comes from encouraging teachers and administrators with high morale and minimum regulation; but, in future, it will come mostly from the aspiration of individual students. Governments that try to take exaggerated credit for others' achievements just make themselves look ridiculous.

Johnson should revive Tomlinson and review the national curriculum. Too often in England the curriculum has been the slave of an outdated examination system. It ought to be the other way round. No recent white paper by any government has had a fundamental look at a national curriculum that was imposed by statute 15 years ago, and even then simply replicated the subject groups and university-influenced course traditions that held sway through the 20th century.

He should make clear that further changes will be preceded by substantial resources for staff development. I have one word of warning for him. He will be lobbied by the educational research community to find solutions abroad. The NUT asked Professor Peter Mortimore to review its document and, while Mortimore gave it a clean bill of health, he added some advice of his own on this score.

He was particularly enthusiastic about the Finns. I have always been something of a little Englander on education policy; and I regret that English education has been dogged by such lack of confidence. The more draconian elements of the 1870 Education Act were driven by fears that the Germans might beat us in a coming war unless we copied their regimental approach. When the Soviet Union got the atomic bomb, there were scare stories too.

Eartha Kitt sang a song about falling in love being common among birds, bees, educated fleas and Finns. Our education policies have developed out of our own traditions. I am all for Alan Johnson visiting Finland to look at its schools; but he should be very chary about interstate educational transplant theory. It does not work in practice.

The writer is a former Labour MP