Education: How red tape tied the hands of teachers: The Government's mania for tests, tables and bureaucracy may undo good work that has been done in schools, says Judith Judd

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The Independent Online
Schools are getting better. This summer children who were five when the Government began its education reforms six years ago will begin their final year in primary school. At the same time, Sir Ron Dearing has produced a report, published earlier this week, which sounds a retreat on both the curriculum and testing reforms. Sir Ron's appointment a year ago was an admission that ministers had got it wrong. Yet only the most churlish would deny that amid the turmoil in schools since the 1988 Education Reform Act, there have been benefits. Standards really are rising. Inspectors say the introduction of the new curriculum has brought 'a number of clear improvements'.

The days are gone when the primary school timetable depended on the whim of the teacher who could, in theory, spend the day on nature study. Before the national curriculum, Her Majesty's Inspectorate (HMI) was reporting that only one primary school in 10 had a decent science programme. Now all children must grapple with topics such as electricity and magnetism. In secondary schools, where 60 per cent of pupils dropped modern languages at 14, all must continue with a language until they are 16.

Even more significant is the change in culture. Secrecy about the curriculum is gone. The closed world of education which kept parents at the school gate is beginning to disappear. Schools have accepted that they are accountable to parents through testing and reporting. A partnership between parents and schools is developing.

The culture change goes deeper. Too many schools in the Seventies put too much emphasis on being kind to children and not enough on challenging them. Many teachers made the excuse that social background explained scholastic failure. Expectations were too low. The new curriculum and the Government's insistence on publication of test and league tables, despite their crude and misleading form, has concentrated minds on how standards can be raised.

Local management of schools, under which councils have been compelled to devolve most of their education budget to individual schools, is also beginning to benefit pupils. Schools can spend their money on what they really need: books, more teaching time, better science equipment. They no longer have to call the local authority for permission to buy a plug.

Critics argue that many of the changes were happening anyway. It is true that by the time the national curriculum was introduced in 1989, schools were beginning to examine their performance in the light of research done by Professor Peter Mortimore and others on school improvement. Some were also influenced by Professor Mortimore's findings in his study of London junior schools, which found they could make a big difference to pupils' performance, whatever their background. But progress was slow and patchy. James Callaghan's Ruskin speech on the need to raise standards was made in 1976 but not much happened in the years that followed. Government legislation accelerated a process that might have taken decades.

That is the credit side. The debit side shows that ministers went about their reforms in a way that ensured that the class of '94 has been educated in an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety. The reforms were shaped by their fear of teachers. Sir Ron was called in to cut back a curriculum that had been made complicated and prescriptive because ministers felt obliged to tie teachers' hands in red tape. The anti-teacher rhetoric of Kenneth Baker, the architect of the national curriculum, has been toned down by his successors at the Department for Education, but it is too late to stem teachers' demoralisation. No parent wants a demoralised teacher for their child. The speed of change and reversal of that change have increased the demoralisation. So many documents have descended on schools that the proportion of teachers' time spent on administration has soared.

Teachers have wasted weeks on a testing fiasco that has cost the Government pounds 50m. The tests have been changed every year. In 1991, seven- year-olds were subjected to a science test in which, in groups of four, they had to talk about which objects floated and why, all in an open classroom. Instead of taking the expected days, in some schools the operation took weeks and the later groups simply parroted the answers given by the earlier ones. The tests, according to Sir Ron, are still not right and will be changed again next year.

The Government's obsession with weighing and measuring children so that teachers in their turn can be measured has little to do with improving standards. The money would have been better spent on training teachers to diagnose children's weaknesses while simple (and existing) tests could have been used to test basic skills in maths and English.

Will children entering primary school this autumn get a better deal as Sir Ron's revisions take effect? The emphasis on numeracy and literacy for the youngest children instead of on an overblown nine-subject curriculum will help. So will the freedom for 14- to 16-year-olds to do vocational courses, more motivating for some than the traditional academic fare.

Yet it may be beyond his power to solve the problem that lies at

the heart of raising standards: the need to motivate and recruit good teachers. Sir Ron has mended some fences with the teachers but he cannot undo all the damage done by ministers' denigration of the profession. Record numbers are leaving and heads are advising their pupils not to enter teaching.

As any private school parent will tell you, money is not an answer to all educational ills, but it does matter. Better pay, particularly for teachers in inner-city schools, would be one solution. More nursery education would ease the problems of secondary school teachers.

The touting of improbable schemes about everything from compulsory cricket to the birds and the bees is no answer. Nor is the slow and messy process of persuading schools to opt out of local authority control. There is no clear evidence, according to HMI, that opting out raises standards. And there is some evidence that competition between schools and league tables simply widens the gap between good and poor schools.

Unless the Government concentrates on the policies that improve learning - the national curriculum, assessment, partnership with parents - it will be in danger of throwing away all that has been gained.