Education Opinion: Save us from the legacy of all those twerps: As Gillian Shephard prepares to make her first speech as Education Secretary to the Conservative Party conference today, a professor of education gives her a few useful pointers . . .

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The Independent Online
Dear Gillian,

Your predecessors, except for John MacGregor, have been like a set of Russian dolls. Inside each one, waiting to emerge, was an even smaller twerp. Your first assignment is to repair the damage wrought by them.

Keith Joseph worked hard and rescued vocational education. Sadly, he also rubbished teachers, putting an end to numerous voluntary out-of-school activities. Goodwill is invisible, like the helium in a balloon - only when it has gone can you can see what it did.

Kenneth Baker was the first of three of your forerunners to come in with 'liberal' credentials. It was a disaster. Baker, Clarke and Patten spent all their time bellowing 'Me Tarzan' to persuade the right wing they were macho. And don't bother reading Kenneth Baker's autobiography, Was I Bloody Brilliant or Was I Bloody Brilliant? - although it is better written than a Jeffrey Archer.

It was Margaret Thatcher's mistrust of teachers that buried them under so much government-imposed bureaucracy. In the 1988 Education Act, Baker took over 400 additional powers. You should shred these. The Government now decides exactly what is taught, even how many beads are counted out by seven-year-olds in national tests, or how the register is filled in. R A Butler, the education reformist, who believed politicians should stay out of the classroom, has been turning in his grave these last six years.

Kenneth Clarke propagated the philosophy of the Dog and Duck saloon bar. The chapter on education in his autobiography should be called 'He Came, He Went'. Never one to waste time on reading, he demolished Her Majesty's Inspectorate, saying a butcher could inspect a school; he introduced disastrous teacher training 'reforms', and slid off. His brief sojourn left you many fences to repair.

As you stroll by the fountains of the ludicrously over-ornate Sanctuary Building (beware, no secure haven here), which houses the renamed Department for Education (as opposed to the Department against Education, presumably), you will notice bird droppings on its plants. The air is thick with John Patten's pigeons coming home to roost.

He insulted the national representatives of parents, supposedly central in government policy, calling their views 'Neanderthal'. He alienated teachers even more than previous ministers - quite some feat - had national test boycotts, infuriated heads at their annual conference by saying he was too busy to answer questions. There were other blunders. Pretend you don't know him.

So there is a lot for you to do. You could start by making sure the national curriculum, currently set out in 30 to 40 folders, really is simplified. We have the most prescriptive curriculum in Europe.

Next, you must sort out national testing. Do not stake all on league tables. When some highly selective school comes top of the league and a school for children with learning difficulties comes bottom, what has this told us?

The Office for Standards in Education, Ofsted, or Offthewall, as it is known, runs a 'free market' in inspection. Retired technology advisers and Mafeking veterans now inspect schools for profit. No one is tendering for small primary school inspections, there is no money in it. Ofsted reports are all written to a mechanical formula with meaningless terms such as 'generally satisfactory'. Reform Ofsted - soon.

Two final points: stop giving grant-maintained schools backhanders, when 90 per cent of our children do not attend them and, secondly, kill off the quangos that now spend billions of pounds and are unaccountable to anyone other than yourself. Do not pack them with ranting right-wingers.

If you want a standing ovation today, say you will bring back caning, that teachers are Marxist loonies and decree hourly spelling tests. The applause will register 10 on the Richter scale.

But the 21st century is only six years away. People may have 30 years of healthy retirement, so huge cuts in adult education are wrong. The free market does not replace the need for vision, values, co-operation and partnership. Hankering after imagined glories of the 19th century is no substitute for a vision of the 21st. Sock that to them, Gillian.

Yours sincerely,

Ted Wragg

The writer is Professor of Education at Exeter University.

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