Leading Article: Full marks for consensus on education

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The Independent Online
Here is Question One in the new, revised Advanced (Subsidiary) Level examination in education. Which post-war prime minister first used the phrase "secret garden" to describe the curriculum and the way it is taught in school classrooms? Was it - we offer this multiple-choice format to those whose attention may have been slipping during the recent phoney war between Government and Opposition - a) John Major; b) Alec Douglas- Home or c) James Callaghan? It is true that Home was a great horticulturist but the correct answer is Labour prime minister Callaghan, who in a speech at Nuffield College in the Seventies launched a Great Debate on education and - incidentally - spelled the end of an era for autonomous local education authorities. Eleven years on, his secret garden has not just been opened to visitors but is busily being trampled upon by inspectors, parents and politicians.

Yesterday Prime Minister Major reached out for the same phrase. To him it served as another way of saying that councils (by which he naturally means Labour-controlled councils) and teachers are far too close. But that partisan usage misses the point. The degree of convergence between the parties on education during the past decade has been quite extraordinary and yesterday's flurry of announcements by the Prime Minister, Education Secretary, their shadows, and Liberal Democrats, served to underline that fact. On schools most of us now agree. In fact, the base consensus on education is a little unnerving.

Since Callaghan, actual policy has of course been delivered by the Tories. Keith Joseph reformed examinations at 16-plus by merging the General Certificate of Education and the General Certificate of Secondary Education, so fulfilling an old Labour wish. Kenneth Baker inaugurated the national curriculum which - once the rhetoric and the party folderols had been stripped aside - answered a long-standing Labour aspiration.

So yesterday turned into an exhibition of mutual clothes stealing. "Kleptomaniac", the Prime Minister cried as he dipped deep into the mixed bag of policies assembled in recent months by David Blunkett for Labour. On testing, the measurement of performance, the use of inspection, schools management, parent choice ... if you look at what they are actually doing or promising to do, rather than listen to the soundbites, the differences of principle fade away.

What differences persist are most obviously on questions of organisation, several tiers away from the classroom. Labour tends to favour residual council controls, which is of course partly a reflection of the fact it runs so many. The Conservatives, once the party of the little platoons and local diversity, these days favours central control with a high degree of individual school autonomy. But even here the real differences between the parties are hard to spot. Both would send in hit-teams of inspectors to run underperforming schools, and to bring inadequate local authorities up to standard. Labour would publish information on attainment by children locally, on the practical grounds that the performance of children in schools halfway across the country is largely irrelevant to the choices parents have before them. But Labour also has no objection in principle to collecting data nationally, for example through the Audit Commission. Some parents send their children across boundaries and need to have access to data provided out of area: the sensible solution is to ensure that data is provided in standard formats which makes it collectible and collatable by central agencies (including newspapers). The issue of national versus local league tables is thus a red herring: the point is that no one, including most sensible teachers, dissents from the principle of comparison.

A twist was added yesterday with the suggestion that the appraisal of teachers should be linked with their performance as measured by their pupils' performance. Once this would have brought the roof down, with Labour and the trade unions joined in pernicious opposition to progress. No longer. The question becomes one of detail and practicality: do tests at seven, 11 and 14 provide enough information; do they assist heads in getting the measure of underperforming staff? Often, it is true, information sounds like a stick with which to beat education's professionals. Understandably, they must feel they are being required to carry many of the burdens of change and improvement - the political class wills the ends of educational improvement but decrees it can be had without increased means. Put that more simply, there has recently been a lot of stick and not much carrot.

Similarly Gillian Shephard's pronouncements yesterday on A-levels raised hardly a flutter from her Labour shadow. He might have said (we would say, ought) that an opportunity for radical reorganisation of 18-plus has been squandered. What Mrs Shephard offered was rationalisation of the examination boards. Fine: who is going to dissent from that proposition, other than those schools which have lately and blatantly been playing the field. Did David Blunkett object to Mrs Shephard's plans? How could he. Perhaps, in office, he will pick up the threads left dangling from Sir Ron Dearing's report. Then it will be his Shadow's turn to mouth objections while getting on with agreeing.

Noting and applauding the convergence of the parties' education thinking may offend those who think the best policy is born in dissension. Fortunately they are wrong: the fact that the political class is pretty much of one mind on the way forward, and that their view largely aligns with the wishes of parents, should be an occasion for celebration.