A test for Thatcher's children: If the Conservatives do not improve educational standards, a generation may be doomed to failure

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The Independent Online
POOR Jonathan Raban. He writes a nice, thoughtful book about sailing round the coast of Britain and then, suddenly, he finds a few of his meditations hung out to dry in the Force 9 gale of what Shirley Williams would once have called the Great Education Debate.

Raban was one of the authors whose prose was used to test the few 14-year-olds who took John Patten's English Paper One on Monday. It is a comical kind of writer's nightmare to find his words suddenly ripped out of context and exposed to very public judgement. My heart goes out to him.

I feel no such sympathy for Helen Forrester, whose book Liverpool Miss provided the passage for the less-gifted 14-year-olds. Raban's passage was not good, but hers was just poor: two dubious uses of the word 'invariably' in succeeding sentences and the inert, sullen image of a crowd pouring off a boat 'like black pepper out of a pot'.

'Why did people from Liverpool want to have the day out of the city?' runs one question on the piece. The correct answer, boys and girls, is this: to escape that city's chronic overpopulation of twee, 'colourful' writers and comedians.

But these passages were what the DfE - the Department for Education, so called, I suppose, to distinguish it from the Department against - thought the children should be able to handle, and the brutal vagaries of politics inspired Mr Patten to distribute the papers for us all to see. Look, his gesture was meant to say, these papers are simplicity itself. Anybody can understand Jonathan Raban, and Helen Forrester is a doddle. What is all the fuss about?

Amid the lurching comedy of the black grotesque that is the Major administration, the education sub-plot is the most grotesque, the blackest and the least funny. Here is the minister bragging that his tests are easy in order to allay the fears of parents that he is doing something nasty to their children, and to outflank the teachers' case that they are being overworked. In effect, he is saying that his own tests will demonstrate to anybody over 45 how low educational standards have sunk.

On the other side, the posturing, curiously squirming, teaching establishment is claiming that, yes, of course, we want tests, but, er, not these and, well, no, we are not going to help you. And are they really adding, off the record, of course: we think your government's in such deep trouble that we may as well keep up the trench warfare until Labour gets back in and we can all forget about education and return to self-expression, theatre workshops and bad spelling?

Forget the trivial sideshows - citizens' charters, arms for Iraq, rail privatisation, Maastricht - education is the one that counts. For the next generation the basic performance of our schools is not a matter of what their parents think, and it does not provide easy material for crass consolations such as Winston Churchill always being bottom of the class. It is a matter of survival. Their jobs, prosperity, even their freedom will depend on their ability to compete with the ruthlessly motivated and trained products of schools in Japan, Korea, Malaysia or China.

So, boys and girls, ignore the nice television reporters at the school gates and face facts. You want a job, money, a stable, functioning culture? Fine, read Dickens, not Forrester, Conrad, not Raban. Get an education at any cost, if necessary in spite of your wavering teachers, your befuddled parents and the political stitch-ups of your Department for Education. Get, to descend into your argot for a moment, a life.

But, you might ask, how? The ConservativeParty's failure to deal with education is the worst blemish on its 14-year record. Margaret Thatcher was initially to blame. Her hit list of soft-headed institutions did not take in the schools. She knew the whole comprehensive, child-centred experiment had failed horribly, but she did nothing. Perhaps she assumed that, if she sorted out everything else, market pressures would drive up educational demands. Certainly she regarded the teaching establishment with contempt, saying, privately, that it had done nothing for the country and she would do nothing for it.

When, finally, the Government did wake up to the issue, ministers were confronted with a cultural and philosophical divide of startling proportions. On one side was the holistic, egalitarian, romantic view that teaching was all about 'soft' values such as caring, relating, self-expression and community; on the other was the competitive, quantitative, classical view that teaching was about imposing information, discipline, analytical intelligence and the rudiments of the history that made us what we are.

Few people fell wholly into one camp or the other, and this complicated the debate. Romantics at heart might be in favour of testing and discipline, and natural classicists might veer towards a degree of child-centred holism.

This produced a fog of imprecision, made even more opaque by the aura of expertise and virtue that clings to teachers in the same way that it clings to nurses at times of political crisis in the National Health Service. If the teachers insisted that they knew what they were doing, it made it difficult, even embarrassing, to side with the increasingly unattractive succession of politicians who were detailed to 'take them on'.

The further complication was the complete absence of any objective standard of what constituted educational success. Intelligence, creativity and even goodness are all immeasurable. If a school with bad exam results says it is, nevertheless, producing fine people, we can neither agree nor disagree. But if a hospital discharges bleeding, crippled or dying patients, we can be fairly sure that something essential is not being achieved.

In a climate of such uncertainty, the myth of expertise can easily take hold. In education, the myth is based on a number of intellectual traditions in philosophy, sociology and psychology. These are, in themselves, perfectly respectable, providing valuable commentaries and, from the likes of Freud or Weber, great masterpieces.

But they share one drastic shortcoming: none of them has been found to work. It is doubtful, for example, whether a single neurotic has ever been cured by Freud, and no one theory of sociology has yet been accepted even as a temporarily viable generalisation. Yet, diluted, systematised and distorted, such disciplines have been used to justify a vast edifice of educational theory which is presented, with all the usual implicit intellectual thuggery now attached to the word, as 'science'.

Faced with the foggy extravagance of this 'science', the Government has now responded with its own minimalist definition. Its educational science sticks to what can be measured and, therefore, to what can be improved. The colourful Department for Education handbook that explains the tests contains a diagram intended to show exactly what children of a particular age should have achieved. The intention is to define what can be measured and then to lower this, like a gigantic performance grid, into the fog of the education system. It is a grid designed

to fetter teachers, not children, because, unfettered, they have failed to perform.

There should be no question that this is the right thing to do. A national curriculum and rigorous, standardised testing are simply ways of ensuring that we are doing the very minimum for our children by providing them with the essential tools of competence and understanding. It does not exclude the 'soft' stuff, it merely says that, whatever else they are given by their school, they must at least have this.

If the teachers will not wholeheartedly endorse this idea, then they are condemning their pupils to failure and rootlessness in a world in which competence and understanding will be prized as never before. The East is rapidly taking over economic leadership from the West, and it has no qualms about training its children to compete, nor in drilling them in the discipline of their cultures. If we do not want to play that game, if we find it unattractively regimented, fine, but the cost will be high, and it will be the children who pay.

The sad possibility may now be that the Tories have started doing the right thing at precisely the time when their administration is too weak, muddled and politically inept to push it through.

There is a worse possibility - and it is one that scarcely bears contemplation - that the job cannot be done at all because the fundamental culture of education has shifted too far. If that is the case, then British state education is doomed. Parents will increasingly abandon the system as they wake up to its failure to equip their children either to compete in the fierce world employment market, or to sustain the greatness of their own culture.

This is, as I say, the one that counts. The Tories should, this week more than ever, be contemplating the reality of their record. This current batch of tests, remember, are for 14-year-olds - for, in fact, Thatcher's children.