Leading Article: Ministers are failing our children

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The Independent Online
The Government's handling of school reform has been a disaster to rival its handling of the economy. Last month, we learnt that the GCSE, an examination introduced by the Tories to raise standards, had done exactly as ministers had forecast. 'The proportion of pupils obtaining graded results will naturally be greater in the GCSE than in existing examinations,' they said in 1985. The 1992 results showed that, for the fourth consecutive year since the first children took the exam in 1988, success rates had risen. John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, then announced that this was probably only because standards of marking had fallen. The GCSE, therefore, must change. Marks for coursework will be reduced, those for traditional exams increased. The grading system will be transformed, making it more difficult to judge whether standards are rising or falling. In most subjects, children, according to ability, will be entered for one of at least four separate papers - a few years after O-levels and CSEs were abolished largely because they divided pupils into first- and second-class citizens.

Mao Tse-tung invented the idea of 'permanent revolution'. But he would have had nothing to teach Tory education ministers. Last week, 14-year-olds returning to school were launched on new English courses, introduced under the national curriculum, the centrepiece of the Tory reforms. The same week, Mr Patten accepted advice that the curriculum - though it does much for 'powers of imagination' and for 'spiritual, moral and cultural understanding' - fails to secure adequate standards of grammar, spelling and handwriting. So this, too, must change.

Teachers, understandably, are exasperated. There has been a committee of inquiry (1988), a committee to propose a curriculum (1989), a consultation report (also 1989), a statutory order (1990), for all of which teachers were consulted and invited to give evidence. Now there will be a review, involving more consultations, and then yet another round of consultations on what the Government proposes to do about it. The English curriculum is not exceptional. Technology is also being transformed. So are the tests designed to test children's performance in the national curriculum.

As it happens, nearly all these changes are likely to improve the national curriculum, largely because they should make it simpler, clearer and more rigorous. The present English curriculum, for example, states that grammatical understanding should be developed 'in the context of discussion' about 'the pupils' own writing'. This sounds like a warning against old-style grammar tests; but what exactly children are supposed to learn remains unclear. Should they understand the function of a verb or not? This is typical of much of the national curriculum. It is full of waffle and over-elaboration; sometimes, it is unintelligible. It has spawned its own jargon: 'attainment targets', 'standard assessment tasks', 'key stages'. The tests, as initially designed, required teachers to spend vast amounts of classroom time on completing checklists to certify that pupils had achieved dozens of 'statements of attainment'. Now, the tests are being changed so that most of them can be completed in a few days with simple pencil and paper.

The real question, then, is why the Government got it so badly wrong in the first place. The answer is that it failed to think out clearly the purposes of a national curriculum. The curriculum was needed for several reasons. First, teachers' freedom to go their own way had become absurd - in theory, there was nothing to stop a primary school devoting the entire week to gardening. Second, the reaction against past teaching methods - the comprehension exercises, the spelling tests, the chanting of tables - had been so fierce as to leave thousands of children without any guarantee that they would learn basic skills. Third, teachers, impressed by research showing the links between social background and academic success, lowered aspirations because they were reluctant to inflict any further sense of failure on working-class children. Fourth, schools had been put under such additional pressures - to warn against smoking, drugs and alcohol, to encourage environmental awareness, to take a stand against racism, to comfort the abused - that somebody had to set priorities.

And that was all the national curriculum should have been about: setting priorities. Simple, uncomplicated statements outlining what children should learn in English, maths and science - not how they should learn - would have sufficed, with simple, uncomplicated tests at seven, 11 and 14 years to check their results. Instead, the national curriculum has tried to cover all aspects of all subjects: in English, for example, it requires children to 'explore preferences' in stories and poems and, in a choice example of edu-speak, to 'ask and respond to questions in a range of situations with increased confidence'.

Have ministers learnt their lesson? Their performance over the GCSE, which they will make more, not less, elaborate, suggests not. The Government introduced the national curriculum and took a firmer grip on the examination system because, it said, teachers were failing the nation's children. But, so far, the politicians' failure has been the greater.