The View From Here: The excluded tend to dismantle what is there, whatever its merits

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The Independent Online
When the new government comes to put into practice its proposals for improving education, it should pause and ask itself why in the past so many apparently good ideas have gone awry. Too often reforms conceived with the best of motives seem to produce the worst of results. A long trail of disappointment winds from nursery vouchers to the expansion of higher education.

Sometimes it is the policy itself which is daft. The proper place for vouchers, for example, is in promoting lifelong learning, not in developing fundamental concepts in the young, which requires a consensual approach. More often, however, the policy is sound - comprehensive education, national curriculum and testing, vocational reform - but the outcome, at first at least, is disastrous.

On the basis that once may be happenstance, twice may be coincidence, but three times is enemy action, politicians have been inclined to conjure up a hostile educational establishment (which they have set about routing). But, more likely, they have been lulled into the comfortable assumption that their job is done when they settle on good policies. They therefore leave themselves vulnerable to at least three kinds of intervention: by the idiosyncratic, by the previously excluded, or by the inept.

Policies often seem to go wrong through being hijacked by an idiosyncratic enthusiast or group of enthusiasts. The best recent example is vocational reform, where the very sensible wish to create a national framework was transformed into a fruitless game of "hunt the competence".

But there are many others. National curriculum testing got off to such a shaky start when the fundamental idea of accountability was supplanted by a particular approach to diagnostic assessment. Science for all to age 16, which necessitated fitting physics, chemistry and biology into a two-subject slot, was seized upon as the means to integrated science. Technology in schools was torn from its roots in designing and making, and left as generalised problem-solving without a specified knowledge base.

Less obvious is the impact of those who feel let down by education as it was. An elite system by definition rejects more than it rewards. Those excluded, if they come into a position to be able to do so, tend to dismantle what is there, whatever its merits.

This happened with comprehensive education, and we are seeing something of it also in the attempted takeover of higher education by the former polytechnics. If they have their way, pursuing subjects to the limits will be swamped by the ever-increasing bureaucracy of quality assurance, admissions will no longer be on the basis of high-level performance but on some generalised score involving things like "core skills", and degree classes will be replaced by records of achievement. Similarly, the character of A-levels is being changed, so even a policy which aims to keep things as they are is undermined.

The assumption that good policy is everything has come naturally to politicians because in the past they have been able to rely on excellent back-up. The Civil Service has provided a secure and desirable field of employment where the places have been filled by the best brains through stiff competition. More recently, however, the detailed working through of education policy has been left to a number of agencies where conditions of service are not so attractive and positions are not so sought-after. It would be wrong therefore to expect the same calibre.

I was led to this thought recently when a representative of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority faced with the views of experts on improving school maths indicated he was more persuaded by a survey of Japanese and Korean officials suggesting that there should be more personal and social education in the primary curriculum.

But it is also prompted by the Teacher Training Agency's pathetic attempts to implement a research strategy, and the interminable grapplings of the joint SCAA/National Council for Vocational Qualifications committee to come up with decent applied education for 14-to-16-year-olds. There must also be fears for the future of the new qualification for headteachers since, amazingly, the contracts for its development and assessment seem to have been let to groups well versed in management-speak, but with hardly a successful practising headteacher among them.

The new government will have to look not only to its policies but their implementation. It will have to decide whether quangos really are the best mechanism for achieving its ends. It will also have to be on its guard against those carrying emotional baggage and the idiosyncratic enthusiasts, even within its own ranks.

Where educational policies have worked, as eventually with the national curriculum and testing, it has usually come down to finding the right person and the right arrangements. Let's hope the new government can find them, so it can break out of the seemingly endless cycle of reforming the reformsn

The author is professor of Policy Research and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University