John Patten's school days grow happier

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DO NOT shout it from the rooftops. Rather, whisper it. These are still early days, but it is just possible that things are beginning to go right for the Government in a very important and surprising area: education.

Of course, it sounds absurd. For some time, the conventional wisdom has been that, whereas the health service reforms were yielding some tangible, if patchy, results, education was going a good deal less well.

Undermined by the sloppiness of Kenneth Baker's Education Reform Act, much of what the Government first set out to do was rendered more or less unworkable by the machinations of the educational establishment. After a poor start came two short-stay education secretaries - the good cop John MacGregor and the bad cop Kenneth Clarke - who between them left teachers confused and battered. Then there was John Patten.

When he took on education after the election, his appointment was cautiously welcomed by the teaching unions. He was, at least, an academic: a geography don. He had also been state-educated and was believed to be on the left of the party. Above all, he was not Ken Clarke, scourge of the doctors, bully of the teachers.

If there was a honeymoon, it did not last long. Mr Patten was no less determined than his brutal predecessor to push through testing, league tables, reform of the inspectorate, grant maintained schools, performance-related pay and all the other whips and scorpions designed to torment the educational establishment.

To make matters worse, Mr Patten seemed to be not only as rude as Mr Clarke, but aloof to boot. He was also a bit, well, eccentric. Wearing his Catholicism on his sleeve, he talked about good and evil, original sin, even heaven and hell. When he wrote that it might not be a bad thing if teachers imbued their pupils with a sense of these things, the sniggerers had a field day.

During the spring and summer, he endured a spectacularly rough ride. The teachers dug their heels in over badly designed tests and overly bureaucratic forms of assessment. Mr Patten attempted to portray the revolt as the response of dinosaur union leaders to popularly demanded change, only to find that even the most moderate teachers, supported by parents, were generally alienated by the Government's apparent refusal to listen.

Mr Patten's final come-uppance came when he failed to win legal backing to force teachers to press on with this year's English tests for 14-year-olds, which he himself accepted were seriously flawed. Fairly soon afterwards, he fell ill - a consequence of stress and nervous exhaustion, according to his eager detractors - and handed the mess over to his tough and practical number two, Emily Blatch.

What followed was a carefully constructed tactical retreat from the most exposed ground, for which Baroness Blatch, somewhat unfairly for Mr Patten, received much of the credit. It was Mr Patten, realising that a way forward had to be found, who made the key appointment of Sir Ron Dearing as chairman of the powerful new School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

Sir Ron, a wise and conciliatory figure, was given a wide mandate to make recommendations which would keep the reform programme on track and, crucially, win back the support of teachers. Lady Blatch played her part by accepting Sir Ron's proposals for fewer and shorter tests, along with league tables which will take more account of teacher assessment as opposed to raw results. But to suppose, as some did, that this was being done over Mr Patten's head is untrue.

Since his return to work in September, Mr Patten has lost his beleaguered air. He feels that everything has worked out for the best. By concentrating testing on core subjects, the national curriculum has been consolidated and the problem of teacher overload dealt with.

Testing itself is no longer seriously at issue, Mr Patten believes - with some justification, if the most recent teacher union statements can be taken at face value. Although the future of next year's tests is still not settled, nobody expects another boycott. League tables, albeit modified, are also here to stay, thanks to genuinely popular demand, and are already proving to be an important means of levering up standards.

If the battle over testing looks close to resolution, what comes next? The most important development is the critical mass of secondary schools which have achieved or applied for grant maintained status. The total has reached 1,000 and, with about 700 more secondary schools expected next year, that means that the Government should reach its target of 3,000 (60 per cent of the total) by the next election.

In a comparable way to privatisation, this is a quiet and irreversible revolution. The days of the universal co-ed comprehensive are numbered. Mr Patten has talked in the past about greater 'specialisation' among schools and more choice. But if he were franker, he would admit that selection on the basis of ability or vocation will spread.

In last weekend's Financial Times survey of the 1,000 best-performing secondary schools in the country, two things stood out. The first was the way in which the state schools are gaining ground on the independents (23 in the top 200 compared with three last year). The second was the success of the

selective state schools in Buckinghamshire, where comprehensivisation was bitterly resisted 25 years ago.

The system in Buckinghamshire relies on selection at 12, but it is far more flexible than the discredited old 11-plus. Children at the less academic 'upper schools' out-perform nearby comprehensives, and there are arrangements for pooled sixth forms. Late developers can move to the grammar schools at either 14 or 16 if they would benefit. Significantly, Buckinghamshire was the only county in England to return a Conservative council.

Mr Patten is thought to be keen 'to push down the Buckinghamshire road'. He is likely to be permissive rather than prescriptive of selection. But the pressure from parents - armed with test results and league tables - on grant maintained schools to perform will have its effect.

Ten years ago, many people, certainly most liberals, would have been horrified at the prospect of a return to any form of selection. I wonder whether that is still the case. If the Tories looked as if they could deliver Buckinghamshire across the country, I suspect they would walk the next election. Mr Patten claims that on education the polls are beginning to turn positive for the Government over Labour. There is a gleam in his eye.