Leading Article: Second thoughts on a flawed curriculum

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The Independent Online
RUMBLING right-wing discontent with the national curriculum has broken into the open. It is significant enough that Lord Skidelsky, a full member of the Government's testing authority and chairman of its history panel, should describe the testing regime as a Byzantine monster. But the more telling fact is that similar doubts are being voiced by educational advisers across the political spectrum. The Government must rethink this enterprise, before it wastes any more time and money on shoring up a flawed structure.

Lord Skidelsky is both right, and politically shrewd, to lay the burden of blame evenly on the shoulders of the Government and the teaching profession. In framing the national curriculum, Kenneth Baker felt obliged to compromise on both flanks. Baroness Thatcher wanted a slim curriculum with simple tests; the profession wanted an all-embracing model of good practice, with an elaborate model of assessment that sought to measure all kinds of skill and knowledge at every level of ability. Everyone except the minister and his officials now recognises that the outcome is over-prescriptive and unmanageable.

The problems can be overcome without weakening the national curriculum itself, or its crucial accompaniment of externally validated testing. Moreover, the next few months provide a perfect opportunity for review. The National Curriculum Council and the School Examinations and Assessment Council will both wither away between April and October, to be replaced by a single authority with an even more ugly acronym - the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Sir Ron Dearing, its recently appointed chairman, arrives with a healthy lack of preconceptions: he should make it his business to present ministers with early advice on curriculum redesign.

The national curriculum pretends to measure progress in each subject from Level 1 (a first-year infant pupil) through to Level 10 (the most able GCSE candidate). On paper, this looks beautifully logical. In practice, it leads to the absurdity of having an academically weak 15-year-old ostensibly working at the same level as a bright seven-year-old. The curriculum council has already, quietly, been moving away from the 10 levels; Sir Ron should abandon them altogether, and grade progress within each stage of learning from 5 to 7, 8 to 11, 11 to 14, and 14 to 16.

Next, curriculum content should be heavily reduced, and not just within the subjects. The first years of schooling should concentrate on establishing literacy, numeracy and learning skills: in other words, maths, science and English. All other infant-school curriculum content should be published in the form of guidance. The core subjects should be tested, but the rest should not: testing technology or geography at seven is a waste of everyone's time. At 11, testing should be on a simple pencil-and-paper model, similar to the regular end-of-year tests that are part of normal life in nearly all independent and many good state schools. After 14, should all 10 subjects really be obligatory for every child? Alternative vocational and academic routes may be better.

Two rules should guide the review. First, the national curriculum should require no more than, say, 60 per cent of teaching time. Second, tests must not overwhelm it.

In the 1988 Education Reform Act, Parliament laid the foundation for a powerful consensus. Experts have since been erecting an increasingly shaky edifice on top; a determined effort by the anti-testing minority could topple it. Teachers should not damage their cause by boycotting tests this summer. They will undermine pupils' respect and confuse parents. As soon as they withdraw their threat of action, Sir Ron can set about building a system that works.