A tweak too far tests a lord beyond his limit

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TWEAKING, according to Lord Skidelsky, the Conservative peer who resigned as a government adviser on school testing last week, is a word much in vogue among Whitehall officials. When he discovered that the Government intended to 'tweak' the national curriculum and testing, he decided it was time to go.

The professor of political economy at Warwick University, who earlier this year attacked the 'Byzantine complexity' of national testing, wants fundamental changes in both testing and the curriculum. He believes the review announced last month by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, is a ramshackle affair which will produce little more than window-dressing.

Not that the blame is all Mr Patten's, he adds. The origins of a revolt which has united Conservative advisers and teacher unions against the Government lie in the system set up in 1988 by the former Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Baker. 'Like many of his schemes, this was half- bakered. Mr Patten was handed a poisoned chalice.'

Now, says the professor, everyone - except ministers and 200 officials in the education department - is convinced that the over-bureaucratic and centralised tests need drastic pruning and improvement. He and other members of the Schools Examination and Assessment Council, including John Marenbon who also resigned last week, felt helpless. 'It was as though we were on a moving train which we couldn't stop, though we knew it was going to the wrong destination. The only solution was to jump off.'

Ministers, he said, took the seven-year-old tests home for the weekend and came back complaining to the council that they were too complicated.

Nor, he says, did they appear to realise what their reforms cost. 'I was amazed how insensitive they were to spending large sums of money on things that were no good. We were engaged in awful exercises costing hundreds of thousands of pounds to align GCSE grades with the new testing system. The project has now been put on ice but thousands have been poured down the drain.'

They also persisted in going ahead with poor quality tests. 'There was this Panglossian view from officials that it was all teething problems. The argument that you need to do tests to show how bad they are is absurd. We knew how bad they were.'

Ministers went wrong in trying to have tests which would both ensure schools were accountable to the public and diagnose children's weaknesses, he argues. 'For accountability all we needed was to test a few things rather crudely. The Government didn't ask itself clearly enough exactly which falling standards it was worried about. Essentially it was literacy and numeracy.'

At present teachers must assess pupils in nine national curriculum subjects in primary schools and 10 in secondary, and place them on one of 10 levels. Once the system is in place, seven and 11- year-olds will take national tests in English, maths, science and technology. Eleven-year-olds may also face tests in history and geography. For 14-year-olds, there will be national tests in all but music, art and physical education.

Lord Skidelsky argues that simple tests in English and maths would suffice at the ages of both seven and 11 with perhaps a little science. Teacher assessment could be used for the rest and assessment of seven-year-olds in history and geography abandoned. At 14, a modern language, science and technology would be added. This, rather than 16, might be the main milestone in secondary schools, as in France and Germany, and pupils would stay in education until they left school at 18. The statutory content of the curriculum should be cut down and ministers should stop issuing detailed diktats compelling all children, for example, to read Romeo and Juliet.

These are only his preliminary thoughts; but he does believe his proposals would help to resolve the question of how to reconcile teachers' professional freedom with the need to make schools accountable to the public.

He resigned because he saw no sign that the Government was prepared to address this central issue and because he felt powerless to influence events.

'I resent the idea that the Government packed their committees with right-wing placemen. None of the people who have been attacked acquiesced in what was going on.

'I didn't want any longer to be part of a procedure which I couldn't control.'

(Photograph omitted)