Leading Article: Removing rancour in the classroom

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SHORTER than the Bible but far longer than the Ten Commandments, the proposed new national curriculum has arrived. There, in 215 pages, is chapter and verse of what schools should be teaching children between the ages of five and 14. The verdict? Good, though it is a second try and there is no room for complacency.

It is still unnecessarily long: probably no European country has introduced such detailed guidance. John Patten should be free with the red pen before granting his imprimatur. The history course is too Anglocentric for an international trading nation. The emphasis on competitive sport requires more thought. Who will pay for staff and facilities to make it a reality in poorer schools?

Aside from such flaws, the amended curriculum is a considerable improvement. It is less prescriptive than the first verbose set of rules that belly-flopped on to desks across the country. The new formula gives discretion and professional respect back to teachers. Whitehall has begun to relax its grip on the classroom.

For this common-sense approach Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, deserves praise. His diplomacy and listening have restored some confidence among professionals exhausted by changes whose inadequacies should have been obvious. Most teachers recognise the value of a set curriculum. It promises to raise general standards closer to best practice. Pupils across the country will be studying much the same material, making changes of school less problematic to individual children. The devil was not in the principle but in the detail.

So Mr Patten may now be able to strike a compromise over the curriculum with those who teach it. The same cannot be said for testing. For a second year, compulsory national tests for 14-year-olds are not taking place in most schools. Though improved, the tests still seem to be imperfectly devised for assessing progress. Teachers are loath to mark tests they are unhappy with, though this does not excuse the NUT's campaign of obstruction. Once again, non-co-operation in the staff room threatens to make the Education Secretary look foolish.

Mr Patten could stand defiant, introduce legislation requiring teachers to hold the tests and then sack anyone who refused. But confrontation would only compound existing bitterness. He should ask school examination boards to relieve teachers of responsibility for testing 14-year-olds and pay retired staff to mark younger pupils. This solution would not be too expensive. And the saving on years of rancour would be considerable.