Leading Article: Ideology leaves the classroom

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The Independent Online
ANATIONAL SIGH of relief was almost audible last week when John Major announced an end to years of upheaval in schools. In an interview we publish today, Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, has made known her distaste for the ideological prejudices of Tory right-wingers. She will champion neither grammar schools nor vouchers for education. An era of permanent revolution inspired by Conservative think-tanks is apparently over.

So far so good. Although the Tories have introduced several sensible reforms, such as testing and the national curriculum, they have lacked a modern vision of education, wrapping their strategy in nostalgia. Their policies have also been developed in a ham-fisted manner. The imposition of under- researched, highly centralised reforms has often been wasteful. More than pounds 460m was spent on the national curriculum before the initial version was replaced by a workable alternative. A thousand schools have been allowed to opt out of council control without conclusive evidence that standards will rise as a result. On many occasions, Mrs Shephard's predecessors unnecessarily alienated teachers.

Yet anyone who cares about education recognises that change is needed now more than ever. The system is still plagued by a culture of under-achievement. Sir Claus Moser's National Commission on Education found that more than half of 14-year-olds do not want to go to school most of the time. Yet almost all think schools should teach them things useful for jobs.

A sizeable minority is literally failed, leaving with no qualifications.

Excessively specialised A-levels continue to cater for only a tiny proportion of young people. Vocational training and qualifications, while holding promise for large numbers of pupils, are held in low esteem beside these traditional academic standards of achievement.

Meanwhile, teachers are overwhelmed by paperwork and tasks that could better be done by administrators. There are few rewards for good teachers and little opportunity to remove those who perform poorly. Teaching careers for life and the isolation of schools make for insufficient dialogue between education and the working world. Yet better links are vital if Britain is to create the kind of skilled workforce that a globally competitive, knowledge-orientated economy increasingly demands.

Against this background, the need for more, not less, educational innovation is obvious. Having abandoned the Tory penchant for grand reform, Mrs Shephard should energetically set about changes that could make a genuine impact on pupil interest, teacher performance and educational outcomes. The Tories have faced little competition from Labour, whose union-dominated policies avoid the big questions. That should change under Tony Blair.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats promise to highlight the issue of resources. At last we can expect an education debate that focuses more on practicalities than on ideologies.

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