Leading article: The dangers of over-reach

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The Independent Online

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, is due to announce an ambitious review of early years learning tomorrow. There can be no disputing that reform is needed in the primary education sector. A spate of respectable international surveys has shown that UK children are nowhere near as well-served by our education system as ministers have been claiming in recent years. And a good deal of evidence suggests that problems in education start early. Unless a child is engaged and enthused by schooling by the time they leave primary school, they are unlikely to catch up.

The Government's climb-down on primary school testing is welcome. Mr Balls now states that pupils will be examined on reading and maths when they are ready, rather than at a fixed time in the school year. Ministers had previously maintained that uniform testing of all primary pupils was essential, despite growing protests from teachers and parents about the dominance of the exams. Free nursery care for children from poorer backgrounds and more help for the families of disabled children are also suggestions that deserve support.

But the Government should ensure that it concentrates its energies on areas where it can make a difference, rather than deluding itself that it can remodel everything in young people's lives through Whitehall edicts. For instance, Mr Balls is also ordering a review on advertising's impact on young children. This will look into links between adverts and dissatisfaction, anxiety, eating disorders and underage drinking. The minister is also looking into ways to get parents more directly involved in school activities and to increase the provision of safe play areas for children. There is nothing wrong with these proposals in themselves. The manner in which advertisers are increasingly targeting children is a cause of justified concern. So too is the increasing scarcity of safe places in which children can play. But bundling up these proposals with a review of the primary curriculum suggests a government in danger of overreaching itself. It needs to learn to walk before it can run.

The language in which these proposals have been spun "10-year plan", "root and branch reform" should also sound alarm bells. This sort of rhetoric is more about political positioning than educational priorities. It echoes one of the worst aspects of the Blair era, when ministers would promise revolutions but fail to deliver even the most basic improvements in public services in a competent manner.

It is right that a progressive government should concentrate on education, since this is where the life-chances of young people are evened out. But without delivery, the best intentions in the world count for nothing.