Education Viewpoint: Teaching: now that is basic

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'BACK to basics', we have been told, has nothing to do with stockings or single parenthood. Even warm beer and spinsters on bicycles have slipped out of sight in recent weeks, and education appears to have found a place at the heart of the Prime Minister's drive to restore Britain to its former glory - as asserted earlier this week by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary.

But when asked recently to pinpoint what he had done to inject an ethos of traditional British decency into our schools, John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, was vague.

At Mr Major's request, Mr Patten wrote to his constituency chairman, Alderman John Jones, last month to explain what 'back to basics' in education was all about. But the Prime Minister would hardly have been surprised to hear, from the two-page letter, that a review of the national curriculum and testing had been carried out. This review was ordered last April, long before the 'back to basics' campaign was conceived in a pre-Conservative Party conference ideas frenzy.

National tests for seven-year-olds will concentrate on 'the three Rs', Mr Patten said, and 'important changes to teacher training' are in the pipeline. To be fair, Mr Patten's letter did not do justice to his efforts of recent months. Hardly a week has gone by in which the press has not been summoned to the Department for Education to learn of some initiative designed to promote traditional values.

Assuming that teachers have been listening carefully to these ministerial edicts, the Union Jack is now flying proudly at each school gate and hymns are being sung each morning by pupils dressed in school uniforms. The publication of six weighty circulars has restored discipline, and inspection reports labelling a handful of unfortunate establishments as 'failing' have raised standards. Best of all, the truancy problem has been solved by a new 'truancy watch' scheme, which Mr Patten suggested might involve bus-drivers and park-keepers.

And there is more to come. In the next few weeks, a leaflet will drop on to the doormats of parents, explaining to them that they should feed and dress their children properly and send them to school on time. Naturally, there will be relief throughout the land once the perplexing duties of parenthood have been spelt out in this simple language.

This is all headline-grabbing stuff, but does it really go to the root of the education system's problems? Mr Patten must know as well as every teacher, parent and pupil that the golden age of education is not going to arrive while our schools continue to be down-at-heel, demoralised places.

'Basics', as he himself said to Alderman Jones, are the foundation upon which all learning is built. While the figures may show that education spending is rising, the reality in many schools is leaking roofs and outside toilets. Restoring the effects of years of decay might mean raising public spending, but wouldn't it be worth it to see pupils working in a bright and welcoming environment?

Better buildings, of course, will not solve all the problems. Mr Patten knows that teachers are the real foundation stones of education, but the faint praise with which he continually dismisses them is not doing anything to aid the recruitment of the best-qualified people. Nor is it going to motivate those already in the profession.

Mr Patten said in his letter that many children were failing to grasp the basics at an early stage, and that this contributed to the problems they faced later. There was some cause for optimism here recently when Mr Major raised the possibility of free universal nursery education. But rumours are now circulating that four-year- olds might instead be placed in mainstream classes - a poor apology for real nursery schools, where children are eased gently into the education system.

These are the real 'basics', without which we cannot hope to engender positive feelings about education in our children, let alone build a successful curriculum and assessment system that fosters not only the 'three Rs' but other important subjects. Unfortunately, these things cost money. So Union Jacks and school uniforms will no doubt continue to sit alongside warm beer and bicycles in the Government's list of vote-winning policies.