Leading Article: Capitulation to the professionals

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The Independent Online
SEEK a guiding intelligence behind the Government's education policy, and you will search in vain. That may seem a churlish response to the publication of Sir Ron Dearing's review of the national curriculum yesterday, particularly when the review has arrived at eminently sensible conclusions, which the Government has rightly accepted. But the fact is that ministers never planned or wanted this review: it was forced on them by teachers boycotting last summer's tests, and its outcome represents a comprehensive capitulation to professional pressure.

Regulations which a year ago ministers were presenting as critical keystones of their policy are now, as a result of Sir Ron's recommendations, to be dropped. Tests will be limited to core subjects and the curriculum will be scaled down and simplified. Within another year, a very different national curriculum will emerge from the one the Government created five years ago. All this is necessary to win back professional and parental commitment - without which the national curriculum can never succeed. Item by item, Sir Ron's proposals are practical and laudable. The central aim, of raising performance in the core fields of learning, remains intact. But how does government education policy fit together now? How is it all meant to cohere? Where are schools heading? We do not know the answers, because ministers are themselves uncertain.

The most glaring example of this uncertainty is the newest element of the review: Sir Ron's suggestion that pupils should have much greater liberty to choose their courses after the age of 14. That means pupils might opt for an academic track - studying, say, classical languages, or specialising in music - or go for a vocational course which prepares them for employment.

Comparison with our European partners shows that this is the right approach. Pupils need flexibility at 14 to find the best routes for their abilities, and they need it later on if they develop in new directions. But if we are to follow that road, we need vocational courses that carry high esteem. We also need a range of schools that can specialise in high-quality vocational courses without being labelled as second- class institutions. The problem is that existing vocational courses are nowhere near rigorous enough to command respect. Moreover, a haphazard mixture of opted-out and local authority secondary schools is hardly the structure best- designed to provide a rational set of options.

On one point, however, there should be no further equivocation. Teachers should observe a golden rule of practical politics and recognise victory when they see it. They have won their battle to reduce curriculum overload and to diminish the disruptive impact of testing. The testing boycotts should end immediately, because most parents want the kind of streamlined tests for older pupils that Sir Ron has proposed - and they want the results published.

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