With the main teachers' unions threatening a boycott of the national curriculum tests and two senior government education advisers having resigned in as many days, now is an appropriate time to reflect on how we arrived at this situation.
Objections by the teachers' unions and education establishment to change are nothing new. When James Callaghan called for a 'great debate' on education in his famous Ruskin College speech in 1976, Lord Donoughue, then the prime minister's senior policy adviser, recalls how 'the education profession reacted, predictably, with less generosity than the public. The National Union of Teachers was furious. The Department of Education was shocked.' So it was with the 1988 Education Reform Act, wherein lie the origins of the present dispute.
When Mr Baker put forward his package of reforms six years ago, it was in response to repeated evidence of the English education system's failure to produce sufficiently literate and numerate school-leavers. A series of international comparisons showed that British schoolchildren performed less well than overseas contemporaries when faced with the same tests. Of course, the educational establishment and the Department of Education and Science rubbished the tests and questioned their validity.
At the same time employers were bemoaning the education standards of the school-leavers they were having to take on, and even university entrance students were being criticised for displaying increasing weaknesses in such basics as grammar and spelling. A study by the Department of Employment revealed that a larger than expected number of adults were functionally illiterate. A Sheffield University league table demonstrated the greatly varying performances of local education authorities when assessed on the basis of exam results. Whether children received good or poor education in the state sector had become a lottery.
In an attempt to counteract this, Mr Baker proposed a national curriculum to raise standards across all schools. This was greeted with alarm by many in the education world who resented any criticism of schooling. Their attitude was that a good education secretary unquestioningly provided increasing amounts of funding for schools without asking what was done with the money. Teachers wanted financial input from government with no questions asked about the output. Nor were parents any more welcome in the secret garden of education.
However, the initial arguments about the national curriculum centred less on the principle of imposition than on the curriculum's content. Mr Baker was particularly disturbed by evidence that children were dropping subjects early and finishing their basic schooling with an incomplete education. When Margaret Thatcher argued with him for a basic curriculum consisting only of English, maths and science, Mr Baker resisted on two grounds.
First, he believed that education should produce a rounded person and not be restricted to what could be caricatured as a utilitarian, Gradgrind form of training. Moreover, if only a three-subject curriculum were mandatory then this core would become the irreducible maximum for many children. It would fail to address the problem of children not studying a broad range of other worthwhile subjects.
Second, he believed that children should not simply be studying 19th- century subjects as a preparation for living in the 21st century. He wanted to ensure that the children of our notoriously monolingual nation should study at least one foreign language, and also technology. History and geography, too, were necessary; and art, music and sport desirable. Individual lobbies called for domestic science and Latin not to be forgotten. One is entitled to ask teachers why they now appear to regard it as beyond them to fit into the school week a range of subjects which they themselves pressed for and which most of the public expect children to be learning.
As for testing, this was necessary to underpin the delivery of the national curriculum. Too many children were reaching advanced stages in their schooling without having mastered basic skills. Surely it was better to find out such weaknesses early, so that these could be corrected? That was the intention and purpose of tests. Of course, testing may also reveal teaching deficiencies. It was this, one always suspected, that lay behind much of the teachers' opposition to testing and to the publication of test results that would allow parents to draw their own conclusions about their children's schools.
During the Baker years the teachers' unions and the Labour Party railed against tests, misrepresenting them as crude measures that would brand children as failures. They were no such thing. They were not pass/fail tests, as was the 11-plus, but intended to be useful diagnostic tools. Parents appreciated this. In every opinion poll we undertook to gauge reaction to the reforms, testing was the most popular element with 75 per cent approval ratings.
The initial teacher reaction was that classroom assessment, rather than formal tests, was the most effective way of measuring children's progress. But ministers objected that classroom assessment was largely subjective and that teachers were unlikely to want to acknowledge their own failings by giving their pupils poor marks. What was needed, therefore, was an objective series of tests revealing standards across the country.
Ironically, in view of the present argument, it was the politicians who wanted simple objective tests and teachers who wanted to complicate the whole business. Educationists sneered at 'pencil-and-paper testing', and the politicians - unwisely in my view - were lured into the quagmire of devising ever more 'sophisticated' assessment and testing mechanisms. Now we have teachers complaining that the system is too cumbersome, time-consuming and unworkable. It needn't have been but for them.
The latest threatened disruption is a sad return to a depressing cycle. The paradox of industrial action being threatened by people who regard themselves as professionals is nothing new for teachers. They walked out of their classrooms during the pay disputes of the mid-Eighties and still wonder why respect for, and the status of, teachers has declined. In 1986 they were strongly opposed to the introduction of the GCSE exam and urged its postponement, and now the NUT has rejected the appraisal of teachers' performance.
So I hope ministers will be resolute in facing down their proposed test boycott. John Patten's promised review is a sensible undertaking, for no system should be immune to critical examination and improvement. But the gains of the 1988 education reforms, passed in the teeth of opposition from educationists, must not be lost. Ministers should not forget that while the teachers' unions never favoured the reforms, parents and employers did. While the producers of education cannot be ignored, the views of the consumers of education matter more.
The writer was special adviser to Kenneth Baker, 1986-92.
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