When the Tories seized the commanding heights in the schools after the 1987 general election - laying down the curriculum, setting tests, deciding spending levels, setting teachers' pay, sending in tougher inspectors - they took a risk. If things went wrong, there would be nobody to blame but themselves. They do their best to find scapegoats: loony Labour councils, incompetent teachers, weak heads. The excuses ring hollow. Central government is all-powerful; if John Major demanded that every school taught Esperanto or if Gillian Shephard ordained that teachers address their classes standing on their heads, they would be obeyed. Indeed, they might as well have issued such orders for all the good they have done.
The national curriculum was bungled from the start. Tory ministers thought it was a good idea because they had seen it working on the Continent. But most Continental countries have a very simple and explicit national curriculum, which concentrates on the basics. Teachers are issued with approved textbooks. They are set clear, simple goals. All this was too easy and too dull for the English; children had to be stretched, differentiated, endlessly stimulated, the curriculum had to be rich and varied. Six-year- olds had to conduct scientific experiments, eight-year-olds had to criticise literary texts, nine-year-olds had to grapple with algebra. The result was a curriculum that tried to cram too much into the school day. The Tories have never grasped that the problem with "trendy" teaching was not that it set standards too low but that it was over-ambitious. Children were taught geometry before they could add up, encouraged to tackle "real books" before they could read simple words. The national curriculum made this worse, not better.
It has recently been simplified and slimmed down, but not nearly enough. Anybody who doubts this should study a report published this month by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research on maths teaching in Britain, Germany and Switzerland - the last two countries consistently out-perform us in international tests of educational achievement. The Germans and Swiss, the institute found, concentrate mainly on arithmetic, just as English schools did in the 1950s. The English national curriculum, by contrast, gives equal weight to algebra, geometry and statistics. A study of English textbooks showed that, compared with their Continental counterparts, they try to take children too far too fast. "More advanced concepts are not introduced [on the Continent] until the great majority of pupils can reasonably be assumed to have mastered basic concepts," the institute reported. Further, German and Swiss schools spent much longer on a topic before moving on: "at age eight, Continental pupils have available in their textbooks some six times as many exercises on a topic as English pupils". Both trendies and Tories would throw up their hands in horror at such repetition - the former because children might die of boredom (to bore a child being the ultimate 1960s sin), the latter because they might not be "stretched".
The national curriculum and its tests were supposed to make teachers more accountable. Instead, they have exposed ministerial incompetence. Yet still the Tories try to blame other people, observing gleefully that results are nearly always worse in Labour-run local authorities. There then follows a silly dialogue. "Labour councils have worse results because they have more poor people in them." "So you don't expect poor people's children to do well at school?" "There is a world-wide correlation between home background and educational achievement." "Well, there shouldn't be. We should expect as much of a child from the poorest home as one from the richest." The Tories do not yet rule the world but they certainly rule Britain; they have centralised education to such an extent that the political complexion of a local council is almost irrelevant. The buck stops in Westminster and Whitehall. We must pray that Labour, if elected, can do better.Reuse content