Leading Article: The way forward for education policy

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SIR RON DEARING'S brief, when he took over as chief adviser on the national curriculum and testing only four months ago, could have been spelt out in words of one syllable: 'Get us out of this mess.' Sir Ron arrived with no experience of school policy but proved in his interim report yesterday that he has the qualities of sharp-minded judgement and a listening attitude that are needed to set the curriculum back on course. He has charted the way: now it is up to ministers to persuade the profession and the public.

The tone of Sir Ron's report is precisely right. It speaks convincingly of wanting to help teachers in their task, and of freeing them to teach a manageable curriculum. Teachers can be in no doubt about the extent of policy change that he is recommending, and which Baroness Blatch, John Patten's stand-in deputy, yesterday accepted.

A year ago, we had an overloaded national curriculum, being reviewed piece by piece, with tests planned in most subjects for all children at seven, 11 and 14, followed by GCSE and further tests at 16, all published annually in national league tables. Tests were threatening to dominate the curriculum. Now the compulsory learning targets are to be cut to the core, with teachers being left to decide how they want to deliver the rest, under national guidance. Teachers probably fear most that their jobs will be turned upside down all over again. That need not happen. The curriculum can be reviewed within two years without undue disruption to the teaching schemes that schools have developed.

National tests will be carried out only in the main subjects of English, maths and science, and will take half as long to administer. For the first time, their purpose will be clear: to report to parents, and the wider community. Teachers' own assessments will carry equal weight, but their grades will be reported separately. League tables will continue to be published for GCSE and A-levels, and will be introduced to 11-year-olds to measure primary- school performance. Those for seven- and 14- year-olds will be dropped, and Sir Ron will explore ways of measuring the progress made by children from the day they start school to the day they leave - not on the basis of their social background, but on whether the school has succeeded in drawing out the achievements that could be expected of their pupils.

These are enormous changes, and they are precisely the ones for which we have been arguing over the past year. Measurement of progress made by pupils is now on the agenda, along with the possible creation of a vocational track at 14. The reduction in the scale of testing and the compulsory curriculum will make it impossible for teachers to continue protesting on the grounds of workload. But Sir Ron and his political masters are not retreating from the basic aims of the national curriculum and testing; in fact, his review confronts teachers with an explicit challenge. They need, as he says, to recognise that the 'corollary of trust must be accountability'.

The question now is whether the profession is in a mood to accept that it has won everything it can reasonably expect to win. Sir Ron's review ought to be enough, but the successful momentum of this year's testing boycott may make some teachers reluctant to relinquish their campaigning initiative. John Patten dearly hoped to carry these reforms through and did, after all, appoint Sir Ron. But, sadly, he may no longer be the right man for the job: a new secretary of state for education, with fresh credibility, will probably be needed to carry the staffroom vote.