The Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, deserves some credit for yesterday's blueprint for reforming national curriculum testing. It is the first serious attempt to get to grips with the problems that the current testing and league table regime has produced. The main one is that creativity is being stifled as too many teachers spend too much time "teaching to the test".
Under the new plan, teachers would enter their pupils for tests when they believed they were ready to pass them instead of having them all tested at the end of each "key stage" (at 11 and 14). This will mean more tests for the brightest pupils, as they will be tested each time their teachers think they have improved sufficiently to take the next test in maths or English (there are eight different levels in each subject in the national curriculum).
On the plus side, though, the tests will be shorter, more focused, and less will be at stake than at the current end-of-year national curriculum tests. The new system will also encourage teachers to stretch the brightest pupils to reach a higher level, rather than just breathing a sigh of relief that as many of them as possible have attained the standard expected for their age.
Mr Johnson was at pains yesterday to insist that the existing national curriculum tests at 11 and 14 would remain in force while the new scheme is piloted in selected schools. Superficially, this looks sensible. In practice, the new system will only work properly if the other tests are scrapped. After all, it makes no sense to encourage the brightest pupils to obtain a level six qualification in English at the age of 13 (one level above the standard expected of a 14-year-old), if they then have to take another test the following year to determine whether they have achieved the standard level five. The other strand of the changes proposed yesterday will give extra help to those pupils who are struggling. This should be welcomed unreservedly. The idea is to offer 10 hours of one-to-one tuition in maths and English to those who are falling behind. There will be financial rewards for schools that make the most progress with children who have difficulties in mastering the three Rs.
The best aspect of Mr Johnson's approach, however, is that he seems concerned to work with teachers and schools, rather than imposing directives from on high. There will be a major consultation exercise before the new scheme is introduced and it will be piloted before it is introduced nationwide.
Until now, the Government has insisted that the current testing regime is here to stay and that anyone who opposes it was selling our children short. The new tone is as positive a development as the substance.