Leading Article: Laying down the law in the classroom

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IT IS not easy for six competing institutions with widely differing traditions to find areas of significant agreement. Usually when they speak collectively, the teachers' unions utter evasive platitudes: this time, in their joint submission to the review of the national curriculum, they have made a positive contribution.

They have accepted that all subjects should be reduced to the basic core of skills and knowledge. The union leaders must be aware that this is no easy task. What is essential? Who decides? They also know that specialist-subject groups will be very annoyed about the outcome: the kind of 'drastic pruning' which the unions propose would mean that cherished strands of learning would cease to be required by law.

The unions suggest overcoming that problem by publishing the detail of the national curriculum as guidance rather than law. Ministers find that option unnerving: they fear, not unnaturally, that if they do not make the content obligatory, it will not be taught. But schools have made the big changes for which the national curriculum was designed. They are concentrating on important skills and knowledge; they have enhanced the status of technology, modern languages and science, improved attention to assessment, made sure of a broad and balanced curriculum, and raised expectations. The present proposals for English would be a great deal less offensive to teachers if they were mostly contained in non-statutory guidance. As the unions caustically emphasise, there are plenty of other ways in which schools and teachers can be held to account: inspection every four years, accounting to governors, reporting to parents, teacher appraisal. It is not necessary to have every dot and comma of the curriculum enshrined in law.

Sir Ron Dearing, joint chairman of the curriculum and assessment authorities, will learn less from what the unions have to say about testing. Teachers assure us at every breath that they do not oppose testing in principle. But they cannot agree on what kind of testing they would support. That is hardly surprising: different teachers within a school, or even a department, are bound to hold widely differing views about the kind of assessment and testing they find acceptable. Assessment by teachers is the most favoured alternative to the exam-type tests being offered for 14-year- olds; but it is the most time-consuming, so how does it help to reduce teachers' workloads? Pencil-and-paper tests are easy to administer, but many professionals despise them because they do not measure the full range of learning.

Sir Ron has said that he approaches change pragmatically, by asking: 'What works?' He must first decide what we need testing and assessment for. It should enable parents and teachers to gauge whether children are where they ought to be. Other aims, such as comparison of schools in crude league tables, are secondary. Some learning could be tested formally, while the rest is assessed by teachers as they go along. That may not be as bureaucratically tidy as ministers would like, but it stands a better chance of working.

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