Leading article: Government should listen

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The Independent Online

The Labour Government is keen for us to have a "big conversation" and the Prime Minister says he is listening. Well, he should have been present at a seminar held last weekend by the Institute of Ideas. It looked at the question of whether there is a crisis in education and, if so, what should be done about it.

The Labour Government is keen for us to have a "big conversation" and the Prime Minister says he is listening. Well, he should have been present at a seminar held last weekend by the Institute of Ideas. It looked at the question of whether there is a crisis in education and, if so, what should be done about it.

There were no carefully chosen focus groups, but there was the kind of open debate that is more likely to occur in the absence of a minister descending from on high to float an idea that has been leaked to the media the day before. A consensus emerged against the Government's "three Ts" regime of testing, targets and league tables. As Professor Alan Smithers, one of the country's most respected education researchers, put it, the three Ts mean that the modern-day equivalent of Mr or Mrs Chips is unlikely to be found in a state school. He or she would have been worn down by bureaucracy and the need to teach to the test.

It needs to be said, however, that the Government has begun to listen to all this clamour. Today's five-year plan from the Department for Education and Skills is expected to lead to more freedom for secondary schools to experiment with the curriculum. Ministers are relaxing the emphasis on the testing of seven-year-olds in favour of more reliance on teachers' assessment of children's work during the year. Schools are being encouraged to set their own targets for children rather than be saddled with a top-down approach. There was scepticism at the seminar over whether the emphasis by both major parties on giving parents more choice of school would work. Some speakers said that all parents wanted was a good school locally and weren't much interested in the idea of choice beyond that. If that is true, both parties may be barking up the wrong tree. Opinion polls, however, suggest that mothers and fathers are keen on more market choice in education. Whether this should extend to allowing every school to decide its own admissions policy - as the Conservatives want - is another matter. What will happen to the children that no school wants?

Having held its first big education conversation, the Institute of Ideas is planning to continue the debate online. Anyone wanting to take part should log on. And politicians might learn something if they sneaked in to the next Institute debate.

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