Still learning, and a good thing too: The great Butler Act reminds us that education reform is a slow process, says Susan Elkin

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The Independent Online
FIFTY years after the passage of RA Butler's famous 1944 Education Act and after half a century of reform in education, the process of change remains widely misunderstood. Consider this conundrum: what has current government education policy in common with the Reformation? Answer: a great deal.

They share the problem of the management of colossal, long overdue change. Regrettably, however, public understanding and awareness of the nature of change, why we need it and how it works, is as sketchy as ever it was in the 16th century.

Take the national curriculum. Over the past 10 or 15 years there has been increasing concern about variable standards in schools. Too many school leavers seemed to have been inadequately prepared for work and adult life - and a sub-standard workforce would further blunt the edge of our international competitiveness. The idea of a national curriculum - to be prescribed in all state schools - evolved out of concern to rectify patchiness of provision. When schools were free to design their own curriculums some children learnt no science, for example. Some had no foreign language teaching. An entitlement curriculum for all seemed a reasonable aim.

It was, though, an enormous undertaking, which, like any major reform, was bound to need a long settling period. Hundreds of people worked on dozens of committees in all good faith to produce detailed syllabuses for the nine subjects from 5-16. All the difficulties of assessing the effectiveness of the new curriculum and of measuring the progress of individual pupils had to be addressed, too. The size of the operation and the degree of its complexity was quite unprecedented in the history of education reform. Even the Butler Act must, by comparison, have been straightforward to implement.

A bravely ambitious project, inevitably it wasn't absolutely right at the first attempt. Of course not. Why did anyone imagine that it would be? If you move house, you probably plan where you're going to put the furniture in the new place beforehand. But you'd be a very unusual person if you stuck rigidly to your original plan and didn't adjust and adapt as you went along, and you'd go on doing so long after moving day. No writer - or sculptor, painter or musician - slaps down his work all at once in a fixed form. No, to be any good, any artefact - and that includes education reform - has to be shaped, altered and allowed to develop and change, sometimes over a long period.

It is simply not in the nature of change that anything worthwhile should be spat out of some think-tank whole, perfect and immutable. Rather, the initial change is just a starting point that should be followed by a long, constructive period of refinement in the light of experience and changing circumstances. That is why it is patently absurd for triumphant teaching unions and gleeful media commentators to gloat in their accustomed blinkered way over the Government's acceptance of the final Dearing Report, published earlier this month, is if it were capitulation and therefore a sign of weakness. Sir Ron Dearing's suggestions for reducing subject overload and simplifying assessment procedures offer a healthy developmental route into the continuous change that the national curriculum will need if it is to remain effective. Excellence - surely what we're striving for - and complacency are mutually exclusive. Standing still achieves nothing.

The worthy national vocational qualifications (NVQ) programme, which allows employees of any age to build up a portfolio of on-the-job achievements into a recognised qualification, is another example of recent educational change, the progress of which has been seriously misjudged. As with the national curriculum, implementing NVQ has been a mammoth task. An 18-year-old catering apprentice recently showed me his portfolio with great pride. Not a committed scholar while he was at school, he is now able to quantify and prove his learning in a very tangible way. In terms of both his own self-esteem and of his usefulness to his employer, his is very good news. There are tens of thousands of individuals all over the country who, like my young acquaintance, are discernibly benefiting from, and learning through, the NVQ scheme. And yet only last month we had Sir Alan Smithers, in his report All our futures - Britain's Education Revolution, gloomily condemning vocational education in Britain as 'a complete and total shambles'.

Sir Alan is certainly right that there is still much work to be done to make vocational education better. Of course, the scheme couldn't possibly have been spot-on at the moment of its inception any more than the national curriculum could have been. Change, as anyone with a grain of common sense can see, doesn't work like that. To expect instant static perfection and then to write off the whole concept when your unrealistic expectations are unsatisfied - as clearly they will be - is both risible and ridiculous.

But with NVQ we've made a constructive start. There is plenty going on that is good and upon which to build a continuous programme of improvements so that it goes on growing and getting better. Destructive 'rubbishing' of something that clearly has already enhanced the lot of so many smacks of political point scoring. Dismissive criticism of change usually comes from comfortably enrutted people who suffer from a retrospective form of tunnel vision. And there is far too much of it, each and every time any change in education is evaluated or further development proposed.

By all means let's celebrate the past and build on its strengths but, crucially, education must look forward to the new millennium that will be upon us before most of today's school pupils become school leavers. Unless the world of education is prepared positively to embrace an ongoing programme of change, these young people are likely to be sold short.

Change, as I suspect Butler and his advisers knew, is a process, not an event. Their great Act was a beginning. For, realistically, change is never finished. The buzz phrase among the Protestant cognoscenti at time of the Reformation was Ecclesia reformata reformanda est (The church, having been reformed, needs continuous reform). How right they were.

The author teaches English in the South-east.

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