Political Commentary: Teachers put Tories to the test

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NOT SO long ago, it seemed that the old trade union bogeys had been laid to rest for good. Union leaders would emerge briefly to lament some new Government pay curb or privatisation scheme, but would present no threat to public order or normal business. Now, ministers seem to be on the verge of a remarkable treble: after reviving the political corpses of Arthur Scargill and Jimmy Knapp, they have given the teachers' unions renewed vigour.

Baroness Thatcher almost managed to make education a Tory issue by insisting that any evidence of declining or inadequate standards should be laid firmly at the door of Labour-voting teachers, wedded to sloppy, 1960s methods. Spending money - on buildings, equipment or teachers' pay - had nothing to do with quality of schooling, she maintained. Consumerism, parental choice, standards and testing figured prominently in a new educational vocabulary.

Suddenly, the reforms on which this culture change is based are looking shaky. At their annual Easter conferences, the teachers' unions proposed to boycott the national tests for children of seven and 14 that are planned for this summer. John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, appeared to waver, promising reviews of both the tests and the national curriculum on which they are based.

It can hardly be said that the row has crept up on ministers. Nearly two years ago John Major conceded that the Government 'may not have got the process right yet'. In language interchangeable with the sound-bites from the teachers' conferences, the Prime Minister added: 'Testing must not dominate the classroom. It must not swamp teachers in paperwork.'

Certainly Mr Patten is not entirely responsible for the current mess. The education reforms were initiated in 1986 by Kenneth Baker. Mr Baker, too, faced crises, some more public than others. Duncan Graham, chairman of the National Curriculum Council from 1988-92, recalls in his memoirs that Mr Baker wrote a stiff letter when the council went, as he saw it, beyond its brief. A summit between the two men took place in Betws-y-Coed in North Wales. Mr Baker was due to run in a charity half-marathon and a helicopter waited behind his hotel. The minister appeared, dressed in running gear, took Mr Graham for coffee and repudiated the contents of his letter (although Mr Graham notes that it was never formally withdrawn). After a few more pleasantries, Mr Baker was whisked off. Thus was the national curriculum forged.

Mr Baker had a more publicised crisis - letters from Downing Street were leaked - involving Mrs Thatcher. She wanted a narrow curriculum with simple pencil-and-paper tests, covering just English, maths and science. Mr Baker opted for a more liberal, but highly complex, curriculum, covering 10 subjects. This was, as some Tories pointed out last week, what the teachers then wanted. But, as other Tories point out, Mr Baker's curriculum is at the root of the teachers' present complaints that the workload is simply too great. Ironically, a switch to a more Thatcherite model will probably result.

Perhaps, after 14 years in office, the Tories have little option but to blame each other. Mr Baker's successor at education, John MacGregor, prided himself on getting teachers on his side. Mr Baker saw this as tantamount to watering down his reforms.

A similar piece of Cabinet tension crept in when Mr Patten took over from Kenneth Clarke at the Department for Education last year. Friends of Mr Clarke disparaged the new minister's contribution to July's White Paper: all Mr Patten had done, they said, was to add one new section on religious education. Less serious sniping broke out when Mr Patten was publicly sniffy about six bottles of Rioja he found inMr Clarke's old office. The wine was so inferior, one newspaper quoted Mr Patten as saying, that 'the only way to get rid of it was to invite the general secretaries of the teaching unions for lunch'. Back came a counter- rumour from one of Mr Clarke's many friends, alleging that Mr Patten changed his clothes three times a day to create more impact. Careful observation reveals this to be without foundation.

All has since been smoothed over, it is said, in the time- honoured Tory manner, over lunch. But the bickering illustrates the fragmented background of education policy since 1986. It has been crafted by four different ministers, with differing ambitions and with contrasting political styles. The lack of consistency about the type of curriculum the Government wants is not the only result.

Other important issues have been avoided. Ministers balked at an open re-introduction of grammar schools but paved the way for selection to return by the back door as schools opt out of local authority control and then elect to change their character. They refused to tackle the reform of A- level, though they acknowledge that it is the wrong examination for many of those who sit it. They went halfway towards introducing a market-based system through open enrolment. But they fought shy of a voucher system - the logical extension - which would have allowed parents to use state funding at the school of their choice, including private schools.

As for Mr Patten, the present rumpus reveals a loss of political touch leading to some fierce criticism from his own side. Perhaps because of the legacy of the last schools dispute in 1986, when Mr Baker made mincemeat of the six teachers' unions, Mr Patten underestimated his opponents. Even the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the more moderate union, decided to ballot its members on boycotting the tests. No doubt they have learnt from their classrooms to sense when the enemy is on the run.

This leaves a messy compromise. Mr Patten conceded that the tests - and, indeed, the national curriculum itself - will be reviewed and, while insisting that this summer's tests must go ahead, he has agreed not to publish the results. Now the unions think they can push him further and persuade him to call off the tests entirely.

Much depends on the outcome of a court case due to start on Tuesday, which will determine whether the teachers' boycotts would be lawful. But there is little sign of further Patten concessions and even some discussion of legislation to ensure that next year's tests cannot be disrupted, whatever the courts decide. Indeed Mr Patten raised the stakes yesterday, warning that the Government is 'resolute' and declaring: 'Testing is here to stay'. Schools look set for a summer of confusion and strife, with testing taking place in only some classrooms.

The Government has only itself to blame. The testing issue is symptomatic of the malaise ministers claim to be shaking off. One backbencher, after visiting a local school, wrote a detailed letter to the Department for Education several weeks before Easter, complaining about the complexity of the tests. Back came a gung-ho reply from a minister, promising no retreat and urging him to back the tests. Within days, the policy had been turned on its head. As with the exchange rate mechanism and the pits, warning signs were there but were ignored as ministers insisted: 'No surrender.' Then, with maximum ignominy, the white flag was hoisted, at half-mast.