A learning-by-choice revolution: Faced with fierce opposition, John Patten explains why his reforms will strengthen education

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WE ARE in the middle of the third and most fundamental set of reforms of the way we educate our young people in this country. These reforms are beginning to generate enormous interest and have at last raised the public profile of education in a way we have not seen before in post-war England, giving us for the first time the foundations of an education culture and an interest in state schooling.

There have been two heroic attempts in post-war England and Wales to refashion the shape of schooling in the interests of what Prince Albert termed 'the sacred cause of education'. His Royal Highness went on to say, at the opening of the great National Conference on Education in 1857, that 'this word, which means no less than the moral and intellectual development of the rising generation, and, therefore, the national welfare . . . opens a question worthy of a nation's deepest interest and most anxious consideration.'

It was the same 'anxious consideration' that later drove R A Butler and the wartime coalition to frame the 1944 Education Act, with its introduction of grammar, technical and secondary schools. And it was undoubtedly the same 'anxious consideration' that inspired the reformers of the Sixties and Seventies, in the interests of the comprehensive revolution, to tear up the post-war settlement so laboriously constructed.

My own school days neatly straddled the two reforms. The Sixties had opened with schoolboys and schoolgirls patiently waiting to be tested at 11 and thereafter parcelled and graded like vegetables into grammar, technical or secondary children. They ended with the transmogrification of those uniformed and inky children into Biro-bearing 'kids', for whom difference was abhorred, diversity damned, choice condemned. Butler's national school plans had been replaced by those of Anthony Crosland.

The much-parodied 'traditional' educational values were at worst deliberately ditched in favour of 'progressive education'. Yet the latter is now equally condemned, even by the most vigorous of its former proponents, including those who guided Crosland's hand.

Where Butler and Crosland tilled and sowed, we are now reaping. For the after-effects of the two great fashions live on. Buckinghamshire's grammar schools flourish next to Oxfordshire's comprehensives; secondary school sits cheek by jowl with grammar school in Kent; classic Butlerian technical schools linger here and there - as in Bexley - just as a whole new wave of science and technology schools is beginning to appear in Lincolnshire.

Neither pattern was successfully nor universally imposed. Rather, we are seeing the end results of two great national blueprints - as amended by most of my 22 predecessors, going back to Butler. The fundamental fault with both is not to be found in tired arguments about 'traditional' versus 'progressive', or 'selective' versus 'comprehensive', but in the fact that governments tried to be too heavy- handed about types of schools, and not heavy-handed enough about national educational standards.

Now, the thoroughly modern role for a government that has learnt the lessons of the last half century is to set educational targets, measure performance, and supply money, while providing a light-touch framework within which local people can develop the sorts of schools and determine the range of choice and diversity that they feel they need. This will reflect the differences that exist in our local communities.

Looking at Butler's photograph hanging in the waiting room outside my office at the Department for Education, I see in those then-youthful and relaxed features both conciliator and centraliser. Yes, he agreed that the churches and local authorities should run the schools - but according to a pattern that he laid down.

What is done cannot be reopened, but I often think his tripartite division of schools into grammar, technical and secondary might have worked if he had found a way of dealing with what Prince Albert didn't call the 'parity of esteem thing'. What His Royal Highness was always so anxious about - that the vocational should have as much attention as the academic - could not be guaranteed in Butler's settlement. Nor could the minimum entitlement of

an education for all our children that is guaranteed by today's national curriculum.

The now-universal support for the national curriculum means that it has the potential to deliver what Butler and Crosland were never able to rely upon, namely a consistency and sense of permanence in what our children are taught, though given the sheer scale of the change it brings about, the national curriculum and associated testing will clearly be subject to

continual refinement and welcome professional debate as they are gradually implemented.

If, in the declining years of the war, the national curriculum had been around, reinforced by regular diagnostic testing at 7, 11, 14 and 16 rather than the sudden-death play-off at 11, then we might well have seen the growth of genuine parity of esteem between the three different sorts of schools Butler had proposed.

Instead the grammar schools were, in their own academic terms, a great success, while the rest languished. That was the trouble: success was matched by perceived failure for the rest and the idea was thus tarred. The application of the idea was indeed local: local education authority by local education authority; but the master plan was national, theoretical and thus eventually unworkable, for it reflected neither the educationally desirable nor always what was desired by local people.

For Crosland, too, the masterplan was all. Ensuring that pupils of mixed ability went to the same schools may theoretically have been sufficient to overcome the disparity of esteem, but it was not sufficient to meet Crosland's grand scheme. The ultimate aim was total comprehensivisation, a goal as unwieldy as the word itself.

To Crosland, streaming and testing created inequalities, to be eliminated wherever possible. The result was the equality of the lowest common denominator. The masterplan satisfied the master, but nobody else; certainly not the abler pupils, held back by the needs of their peers; certainly not the slower pupils, conscious of the progress of others and not always able to keep pace; and certainly not the parents, who had all too little objective evidence of their children's abilities and progress. Testing came too late in some cases to allow those with previously undiagnosed difficulties to be helped.

What we need, and what we are now providing, is not a masterplan, but a common framework, delivering a minimum entitlement of education for all our children, supplying a national curriculum and testing the children regularly. That is real equality of educational opportunity.

The framework is being provided by the current Education Bill. Whether the schools are LEA maintained or self-governing grant maintained, it is up to them and local communities to determine the exact nature of local education, knowing that choice is supported and strengthened by the national curriculum and regular testing.

Whether we call it playing to their strengths, or identify it as 'specialisation', schools are no longer being told they must adapt to some identikit picture drawn up by their county hall or Whitehall. The terms of the debate are changing, from national blueprints to local diversity and choice.

Nothing cheers me up more, after nearly a year at the Department for Education, than to note the lingering death of the argument that used to dominate the education debate about how much money is flowing into the school system. Instead the debate is switching to how well children perform in schools, how schools themselves perform, whether the measure of performance is fair, and how the presentation of that performance in comparative tables can be improved.

Much greater diversity is breaking out within schools, as vocational qualifications cascade down from the land of further education. The words 'setting' and 'streaming' can be spoken again - once-secret vices now suddenly acceptable. Being proud to be different is OK between schools as well: choose to be self-governing and grant maintained or LEA run.

There are different sorts of LEA- maintained schools, some with technical or musical top-spin, others more 'academic'; while a number wish to follow the International Baccalaureate. There is exactly the same range of variety between different grant-maintained schools.

The Technology Schools Initiative is raising the aspirations of a generation of schools that want to be more technological. Businesses are becoming more involved. Go to Lincoln, for example, and see the new college of science and technology, a maintained school set up with the eager participation of local business.

All this might seem anathema to the tidy-minded - but the tidiness of equality of opportunity is provided by the national curriculum and testing, not by the type of school.

We are now on another cusp between the second phase of post-war schooling and the third, just as in the Sixties as a schoolboy I saw that similar switch from the world of the 11- plus to the comprehensive experiment. Diversity, choice and attention to basic skills really are modernising our education system in the way that Prince Albert dreamt of a century and a half ago.

The writer is the Secretary of State for Education.

(Photograph omitted)