Leading Article: Lessons in egg-sucking

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The Independent Online
THE PUBLIC may consider this the most incompetent government for half a century, but the ministerial appetite for telling other people how to do their jobs and run their lives remains undiminished. On stage last week was John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, bearing six separate circulars, with a total of 275 pages, on how to deal with naughty children and related matters. 'Children need a calm and purposeful classroom atmosphere,' begins a typical passage. 'If teachers do not keep order, the children in their charge will not learn well.' There is more: miscreants may be put in detention, reported to the head, suspended and, 'as a last resort', expelled. Bullying and drug-taking are to be punished, politeness and honesty encouraged. As if this brave new classroom world were not enough, Mr Patten has taken it upon himself to circularise parents, at a cost of pounds 2.1m, explaining that they should give their children breakfast, dress them properly and then send them to school on time.

Those tittering in the back row should stop at once. This is no laughing matter. Margaret Morrissey, secretary of the National Association of Parent Teacher Associations, thinks somebody is going to kill Mr Patten. Certainly, somebody should sack him. He must be living in a fantasy world if he cannot see that such advice will be viewed as patronising and platitudinous. It is true that many schools have discipline problems. Most are caused by a small minority of disturbed children. They need more individual teacher attention and more help from educational psychologists - both are increasingly difficult to obtain because of funding cuts. Some need to move to special schools with smaller classes - Tory legislation has made the procedures for such transfers more time-consuming. Again, it is true that a minority of children are not fed or dressed properly - the numbers living in poverty have trebled to 3 million since the Tories came to power in 1979.

So much for Mr Patten's egg-sucking lessons. How well have he and his predecessors been doing their job at the Department for Education? Their main task, for the past seven years, has been to design the first national school curriculum for England and Wales. The acceptance last week of Sir Ron Dearing's proposals for change are a tacit admission that they bungled it. Ignore any ministerial bromides about evolution. The curriculum that Kenneth Baker installed in 1988 has been dumped.

And rightly so. As Sir Ron explained last week, the 10-subject curriculum as laid down by law was so overblown that it was simply impossible to cover within the normal teaching year. Almost incredibly, primary schools found themselves giving less attention to the basics of reading, writing and maths. The excessive complexity of tests for children of seven, 11 and 14 drove teachers into open revolt. It is worth emphasising that the failure of the national curriculum was a failure of ministerial leadership. Kenneth Baker appointed 10 different groups of experts to draw up the syllabus for each of 10 different subjects. Naturally, each group wanted its subject covered in full - geography teachers, for example, had a vested interest in getting as much geography on the timetable as possible. Another group of experts, who recommended the testing system, had a vested interest in the quantity and complexity of tests which they (or their fellow specialists) would be paid to set. Mr Baker failed to create a mechanism for balancing the curriculum and the tests with the mundane fact that children spend only 25 hours a week in classrooms. His successors failed to do more than tinker - until Mr Patten faced teacher insurrection last summer.

Sir Ron has done the job that should have been done five years ago. Testing, in primary schools at least, will be confined to maths, English and science, the most important subjects. Syllabuses for other subjects will be cut by half. One-fifth of the timetable will be left to the discretion of individual schools. Pupils at 14 will have the chance to pursue mainly vocational courses. Sir Ron has understood the necessity of all this, partly because he listens, partly because he has some grasp of the realities of life. Unlike Mr Patten and some other recent incumbents at the Department for Education, he did not have the benefit of an expensive public school or Oxbridge education. Nor, so far as we know, was he beaten by Jesuits. He left school at 16 for a job in a labour exchange and worked his way up the civil service. Those who govern Britain should heed the lessons.