Alan Smithers: Back to the future for an educational transfusion

That was education in 2008 that was. A tests fiasco, curriculum change and more on the way, and Ofsted stretched to breaking point by an over-extended remit. Add to that funding fears, and all four of the main planks of the great Education Reform Act of 20 years ago look as though they will need to be revisited yet again in 2009.

The Government has ultimately handled the SATs disaster rather well. It has shed the unnecessary tests at age 14 to concentrate on those at the end of primary school. It has stood firm against the teacher unions who have used the failure of a particular contract to try to get rid of the tests altogether. It has demanded some necessary changes at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

But if it is not careful, 2009 could be frying pans and fires. First, it has to hope that Edexcel, passed over for the 2008 round of testing, will be able to deliver in 2009. But lurking in the wings is "testing when ready". These single-level tests were a bright idea of the Brown government, but they were always misconceived. The three pilots to date have brought salutary news from the Government's favourite evaluators, PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Will Ed Balls have the courage to put his hands up and say enough is enough?

Testing should, in fact, be no great problem for the Government. All we need in primary schools is some good independent external tests of literacy and numeracy in the final year. When there were no tests, far too many children were leaving primary school unable to handle words and numbers properly. But the tests must be of what the children can do; not a judgement on teachers or schools. Targets and league tables just distort by rewarding teaching to the test.

The national curriculum was originally conceived – by Margaret Thatcher – as a means of setting down what no child should miss out on. Kenneth Baker's formulation, however, tried to encapsulate the whole of compulsory schooling. The various revisions since have only led to further complications and restrictions. The Government has been absolutely right to set up reviews and institute reforms, but wrong to do so separately for each slice of education. It would have been much better to have gone back to first principles and traced them through from three to 18.

As it is, the Government will have struggles on its hands in 2009. The early-years learning goals have already led to outcry. The Rose review of primary education is making a brave stab at specifying without specifying, but its six areas of experience are necessarily vacuous. The QCA's reformulation of the secondary curriculum has dissolved into impenetrable jargon. The diploma, which as originally intended could have been the missing link in vocational education for 14 to 19-year-olds, has lost its way, and only a quarter of the places made available in 2008 were taken up.

Ofsted also needs to be rethought. The Children's Plan, and bundling up Children, Schools and Families, does not help. Ofsted was originally intended to be our eyes and ears in schools. But it has increasingly gone down the bureaucratic route of procedures and box-ticking. Baby P in Haringey is a tragic warning of the consequences. Rather than Ofsted giving us a more rounded picture of schools, it has only added to test pressures. The Government should require the inspectors to go back to observing what goes on in classrooms.

The credit crunch will be double-edged for schools. It will boost teacher recruitment, but the money probably won't be there to employ them. The nation's finances are in a mess. The best schools can hope for is that the Government will refine the funding formula to minimise the impact.

My New Year's education wish for the Government is to stop digging. It should recognise that, as with the tests for 14-year-olds, there is much to be gained by undoing. Strip to the essentials: tests to show what children can do; a curriculum to set out what no child should miss out on; inspections to tell us what is happening in schools; and money to pay for it. Let Education 2009 be a new and much better version of Education 1988.

The writer is professor and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham