Mr Patten's Level 10 challenge: Flaws in the design of the national curriculum have caused teachers to explode with rage. Restoring their confidence will not be easy, warns Colin Hughes

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The Independent Online
JOHN PATTEN, the Secretary of State for Education, is in a deep hole. Although he did not dig all of it himself - most of that has been done for him by his advisers and predecessors - he does have to find a way out of it if he wants to save his political skin. Of one thing he can be sure: teachers are too disaffected to offer him a ladder.

The teaching profession has endured a sustained period of exceptional stress in the past few years. In 1987 Kenneth Baker, then secretary of state, carried the national curriculum into law. But the section of the 1988 Education Reform Act that requires its delivery in schools took up only a page of text. The real meat of the curriculum - its content, the targets for learning at every stage of schooling - was left to 10 working parties.

They took each obligatory subject separately, and drafted what they thought should be regarded as essential learning for all pupils in state schools between the ages of 5 and 16. Each working group, in its own terms, performed a creditable job. Ministers quibbled with some recommendations, rewrote a few controversial lines, but mainly pressed ahead with the advice they were given.

The most important 'core' subjects - English, maths and science - were dealt with first, along with technology, which was seen as a British failing in urgent need of redress. By last spring all the remaining 'foundation' subjects were complete: history, geography, music, art, physical education and modern languages.

It looked, and felt, like an extraordinary advance. Many teachers had been anxious and suspicious of the Government's plans - they did, after all, imply heavy criticism of the profession's performance. But once each subject was completed, teachers found little to resent in the curriculum content. They embraced it, with varying degrees of warmth.

Each subject was broken up into learning strands (within English, for example, there were separate strands for reading, writing, speaking and listening). Within each strand, learning targets were set at a series of graded levels, rising from Level 1 (just starting primary school) to Level 10 (the brightest GCSE pupils).

Those strands also separated learning targets into 'programmes of study' and 'statements of attainment'. If you want to find out what the national curriculum requires for your child in any given subject at any given stage, you must consult a shelf- full of bulky folders and cross-refer between programmes of study, attainment targets, statements of attainment and examples. Parents can be forgiven for finding the curriculum barely understandable: it took a lot of in-service training and out-of-hours homework for teachers themselves to grapple with the documents.

So although the national curriculum quickly moved from being a matter of intense controversy to a consensual feature of the educational landscape, most of its problems were built in at the start.

There were, and still are, two problems that loom over all the rest. The first is that each one of the subject working groups (inevitably and naturally) packed everything that it thought important into its own curriculum. Neither the groups, nor the ministers who are ultimately responsible, paid much regard to whether all the subjects together made a workable whole. It soon became apparent that the curriculum was grossly overloaded - particularly in primary schools, where early evidence suggested that the teaching of literacy and numeracy was being squeezed by the other subject requirements.

At that point the National Curriculum Council, charged with framing and revising the curriculum, set about trying to ease the burden. It simplified the maths and science curricula, and promised to do the same with English and technology.

But it had no control whatever over the second problem: testing. Ministers thought it essential to find out at all the important phases of schooling - 5 to 7, 8 to 11, 11 to 14, and 14 to 16 - whether children were in fact acquiring the knowledge and skills enshrined in the national curriculum. They argued, with some justice, that British parents were provided with too little concrete information on their children's progress.

But the objectives of testing became confused. Was it merely diagnostic - to assess how each individual child was faring, so that he or she could be brought up to pace? Was it designed to compare school with school, and teacher with teacher? Or was it intended to check whether national standards were rising or falling?

Different kinds of test are needed depending on the aim to be achieved. If you want a snapshot of national progress, it is more efficient to sample a small proportion of children periodically: there is no need to test everyone. If you want to diagnose children's progress, moderated assessment of individual children by their classroom teachers is enough. But if you want to compare schools' progress, you need an externally set and standardised body of tests that is more or less consistent in form from year to year. Ministers chose that option - arguably the most expensive and time-consuming approach - while continuing to claim that the tests were primarily diagnostic.

Moreover, the body set up to administer testing, the School Examinations and Assessment Council, also faced teachers' hostility to the principle of government-enforced tests. To render the tests acceptable, it chose a complex model for the first trial tests - those for seven-year-olds. Children had to be tested in skills and knowledge, either individually or in small groups - a process that consumed an enormous amount of teaching time.

The advisers quickly recognised the justice of the teachers' protests, and scaled down the tests for seven- year-olds. Ministers and Department for Education officials therefore assumed that the expected teething problems with the next phase - tests for 14-year-olds in maths, science, English and technology - would similarly be overcome. They also assumed, wrongly, that the subsiding protests of primary teachers meant the tests were now acceptable.

The first national pilots for 14-year- olds' tests last year were faced with trepidation by science and maths teachers. Some remained opposed or sceptical after the event; others were content. It appeared as if the testing council had learnt its lesson, and would ensure that testing would be much simpler and swifter to execute.

But the testing authority failed to reckon with the combined fury of English teachers. There, more than in any other subject, it became clear last autumn that the proposed tests for this summer actually dictated the shape of the curriculum - when it should be the other way around. The problem flowed directly from the way the curriculum is framed, with its vague targets for learning accompanied by precise programmes of study. Which were being tested? Were either being tested?

Teachers had to teach specific Shakespeare texts and anthology extracts at a specific time. English teachers who had found it relatively easy to accept the broad, generalised guidelines in the national curriculum balked at having a large part of their teaching year determined by tests which anyway seemed hopelessly ill- framed.

English teachers had introduced the new GCSE with great enthusiasm. Its emphasis on assessing work done during the course seemed to them to be raising standards and pupil motivation. But Kenneth Clarke, Mr Patten's immediate predecessor, peremptorily slashed the level of coursework and insisted on traditional examination for most of the course. English departments were, therefore, already seething with frustration. The new tests of 14-year-olds tipped the balance: the teachers rebelled, as one.

Their rebellion became the catalyst for the present crisis. Mr Patten's first mistake came last Christmas when he failed to detect the strength of English teachers' feelings. If he had pulled the plug on the English tests immediately and promised a review, he might have stepped out of his hole relatively unscathed.

In fact he did decide not to publish the English results - but two months too late. By then the forest fire of opposition to English tests had sparked a far wider conflagration, fuelled by the dry tinder of a general frustration among teachers. Its ferocity has taken even union leaders by surprise, so it is hardly surprising that the Government misjudged the teachers' mood.

It is now clear that the teaching profession as a whole rejects not only the form of the proposed tests, but also the need for externally standardised tests in every subject at every stage. Not just some, but most teachers have been carrying out the tests with leaden disapproval, and it is absurd to imagine that the Government can bring in its proposed testing programme against such deep and widely felt opposition among those who must carry out the task. Even if the Court of Appeal rules next week that the present boycotts are unlawful, Mr Patten must still find a way of winning teachers round.

It is hard to see how he can do that. Too many teachers are too fed up

to be bought off by the promise of

a review that Mr Patten made last week. No wonder he is sounding so

beleaguered.

What then? Mr Patten can only hope that the new body he has set up to take over both the curriculum and testing - the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority - will help him climb out of his hole. Sir Ron Dearing, its chairman designate, has already been asked to revise the whole structure.

The curriculum must be simplified without becoming over-prescriptive. Tests must be designed to assess progress in the curriculum itself. They must be simple and straightforward to administer but not simplistic. There will probably have to be fewer tests than were originally planned. But - and this is perhaps the most galling point for Mr Patten - even that may not be enough to win the acceptance of an angry profession. The national curriculum consensus, which looked so promising, has all but expired. The prospects for its rapid recovery look bleak.

(Photograph omitted)

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