Stumbling on the road to Jerusalem: Education reform was a crusade for John Patten. A year on, his campaign is mired, says Colin Hughes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE LAZY days of summer are probably the best time for governments to overturn their policies. And this summer there is a prevailing suspicion that Baroness Blatch, the Education Minister who has been understudying during John Patten's illness, has been rewriting her master's lines - not so discreetly, either. One gossip accuses Lady Blatch, an old Huntingdon friend of John Major, of angling blatantly for appointment as Secretary of State for Education in an autumn reshuffle; another points out that it is, at the very least, rather embarrassing for Mr Patten to have his policies wholly recast while he is away on holiday in France recovering from tummy trouble or stress (depending on whom you believe).

In two weeks the Government has abandoned its opposition to using teachers' own assessment as a feature of national testing; dropped nationally set tests in all but three or four subjects; and agreed to scale down the curriculum as a whole. Controversial reviews of the curriculum for English and technology have been shelved. The 10- point scale for measuring pupils' achievement is in doubt, and plans for league tables of tests for seven- and 14-year-olds have been shredded. Lady Blatch is also privately signalling that she wants to heave a parboiled 'mum's army' plan for training infants' teachers into the kitchen bin (a fate its sexist nickname surely deserves).

On taking up his cabinet post, Mr Patten personally penned Choice and Diversity, a 30,000-word White Paper that was intended to be a blueprint for education for the next quarter century. Little more than a year later, Mr Patten's policy foundations look like an empty hole. The professional challenge to testing and an overweight curriculum garnered popular support. That has undermined the ministers' platform and shifted the agenda towards the professionals' ground.

By accepting the curriculum review conducted by Mr Patten's adviser, Sir Ron Dearing, the Secretary of State and Lady Blatch have probably stemmed the landslide that threatened the foundations of their policy: if they had done any less, the teaching unions' campaigns would probably have escalated in the autumn. But ministers have yet to regain the initiative, and in the immediate future it is highly unlikely that they can do so. For the fact is that their policy is shaky on other fronts, too.

Opting out attracts little attention these days, but it is the most vulnerable area of policy. It was the keystone for the idea of diversity that Mr Patten placed at the centre of his White Paper philosophy. After taking office, he repeatedly insisted that the prospect of having 1,500 secondary schools opted out by April 1994 was merely a statistical projection. But he plainly believed that the newly self-governing schools would be so widespread that the policy would be irreversible. Opted-out schools would become the model. Only the most starry-eyed reading of the figures could now lead anyone to that conclusion. It is unlikely that 1,500 schools of any kind will have fully opted out by the next election.

Since 1989, when opting out began, 683 schools have become fully self-governing or are ready to do so. Of those, 501 are secondary schools, out of a total 3,900 in England and Wales (none has opted out in Scotland, nor seems likely to). A further 215 opt-outs are in the pipeline (of which, interestingly, most are primaries). There are clear indications that the rate of ballots is slowing down, that more are voting against opting out, and that the majority are concentrated in a handful of areas - Kent, Lincolnshire, Essex and some outer London boroughs.

Opting out is a revolution that has to happen quickly and completely if it is to endure. Dismal though it may seem, both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats can be expected to enter the next election determined to bring all the opted-out schools back into local council control and abolish the new Funding Agency for grant- maintained schools.

For many parents, the past few years of promises must look fatuous, while many teachers probably feel their efforts have proved futile. Having spent huge amounts of time and money creating the national curriculum and its associated testing regime, the Government has finally - and rightly - accepted that it must be re-invented. Despite the enormous amount of political energy spent on opting out, it seems very probable that the policy is running out of fuel.

For this, the Government is mostly to blame. At the outset, too much of the policy detail was flawed. It has been badly sold. Some reforms have been pushed too far in the wrong direction (testing), or too half-heartedly (opting out), while others have received inadequate attention too late (teacher training). The new inspection system looks fairly healthy - but even there, the original idea of bypassing the 'education establishment' has conveniently been allowed to evaporate: most inspection teams are going to be led by local authority advisers.

Parents need not feel too gloomy, however. The national curriculum is working, by jolts and starts. More children are staying on at school and college, and gaining better grades. Recent changes should at least prevent teachers becoming further entrenched in dissent. Schools are managing themselves more efficiently, and will continue to be accountable for their performance, both to the public and to a more regular inspection regime. On the ground, there is a clearer sense of purpose than there was 10 years ago. Many of the reforms that the Government set in train are starting to work.

So what of the rumours of Mr Patten being reshuffled and Lady Blatch elevated? Does it matter? Well, yes. It is a bad idea, with bad precedents, to place an unelected life peer, however competent, in charge of policy that has a direct effect on the voting public: one only need recall Lord Young's political problems at trade and industry.

Mr Patten, however, probably will have to move, and the best bet on his successor is Gillian Shephard, Minister of Agriculture. But those teacher union leaders and grumbling Conservative backbenchers who focus on Mr Patten's performance are missing the mark. The important figure is John Major. It was he who proclaimed education and training as the classless society's greatest challenge. It is his stumbling crusade that is now having to regroup, a long way from Jerusalem's gates. He approved and promoted the reforms and reversals of the past few years. He appointed Mr Patten, and backed him. But then, claiming the credit and shifting the blame has long been the Prime Minister's prerogative.