SCHOOL STANDARDS: Problems on many fronts, but barriers are high

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BY ANY stretch of the imagination, it has been a bad week on education for the Government.

Yesterday's report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority criticising how several subjects are taught is just the latest in a series of criticisms voiced over the past few days.

According to the exams watchdog, children no longer have the concentration span to read books. This is because they are taught to focus only on certain passages so they pass their English tests. In history, they learn too much about Hitler and not enough on British heritage.

This comes after the chief schools inspector, David Bell, warned in his annual report of deteriorating discipline, of 2,000 schools - one in 10 - making "very poor" efforts to improve, and of ministers being in danger of pursuing the wrong remedies because of Tony Blair's insistence on hanging on to A-levels and GCSEs.

It also comes after the National Audit Office warned that spending pounds 885,000 on measures to combat truancy had failed - and that truancy levels were as high as they had been when Labour came to power in 1997.

All in all, it was the kind of week that, if Estelle Morris had been Secretary of State for Education, she would have decided she was not up to the job and resigned - again.

A note of caution should be urged, though, before concluding that the Prime Minister's education policies have gone off the rails rather than delivering on the three promised priorities of "education, education and education".

True, discipline is worse - only 66 per cent of schools report good behaviour compared to 75 per cent five years ago - and the drip, drip of constant, low-level disruption in the classroom is getting on more and more teachers' nerves.

But Mr Bell did add that education was improving - particularly for the under-fives and in terms of exam results - and reserved some of his most trenchant criticisms for the traditionalist lobby who claim better results mean "dumbing down".

Indeed, he cited the growing number of failing schools this year - 213 as opposed to 160 last year - as evidence of this. Inspectors had "raised the barrier" for schools because they felt standards had improved and all schools should therefore be able to do better.

On truancy, the NAO report showed that - while a target of cutting truancy by a third between 1997 and 2002 remains a pipe dream - the measures taken have had some effect in persuading parents not to take children out of lessons in term time. The number of authorised absences has fallen.

In all, then, there may still be more questions unsolved than solved but the picture is more complex than some of the more damning headlines this week suggest.