The Tories are still in trouble at school

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The Independent Online
LADY Thatcher continues to haunt her successor in the most unexpected ways. The irony of Sir Ron Dearing's proposals to scale down the national curriculum and streamline testing will scarcely have been lost on the baroness. In her memoirs she documents her protracted and frustrating struggles first with Kenneth Baker, then with John MacGregor, over the curriculum, ending with a flourish: 'By the time I left office I was convinced that there would have to be a new drive to simplify the national curriculum and testing.'

And that, of course, is just what Sir Ron has done, a little more than three years later. Sir Ron, the quiet civil servant from the Post Office, has emerged as a class act. Indeed one Tory cynic, asked this week who was running education policy, John Major or John Patten, the Education Secretary, replied: 'Ron Dearing.'

It isn't fair, of course, not least because when it became apparent to the Education Secretary last Easter that something would have to be done about the rigidity of the curriculum and the complexities of the tests applied to it, the imaginative appointment of Sir Ron was Mr Patten's own.

But if that glib answer is wrong, what is the right one? There is no doubt that most of 1993 was for Mr Patten an annus fairly horribilis. He was ill for part of it. His decision to tough out union opposition to complex and ill-designed tests, and then the Tory Wandsworth council's failure to secure a court ruling that a union boycott of English tests was unlawful, helped to weaken his political position.

Indeed, he all but fell prey to an unholy alliance of Tory backbenchers which has played an important part in the saga of testing and the national curriculum. There were those on the right who had always, like Lady Thatcher herself, been deeply suspicious of an over-dirigiste national curriculum, fearing that it would rob schools of their ability to become specialist centres of excellence, and spell the end of non- curriculum subjects such as Latin. And there were those on the left of the party, including some prominent members of the Tory backbench education committee, who simply thought it was a non-starter to push through a policy which had attracted outright opposition from the teaching unions.

Mr Patten's problems had been compounded by a rather high- handed and macho presentation of the policy at the beginning of the year. And he was arguably too quick to take his department's advice that they could ride out opposition, too slow to listen to the many who warned him that trouble was on the way. There were even dark hints that he might be an early candidate for a reshuffle. But Mr Major, honourably, did not move him.

Superficially, it is easy to make a case that the Prime Minister has taken over a good deal of policy- making from Mr Patten; Nicholas True, deputy head of the No 10 Policy Unit, has been an active player on education. Baroness Blatch, Mr Patten's deputy, who adopted a significantly higher profile during his illness, is a close friend of Mr Major, and there are persistent reports of tension between the two ministers. After the National Commission for Education pronounced in favour of universal nursery education in November, Mr Patten stuck to the government line that however theoretically desirable, there was no money - only to hear the Prime Minister confirm before Christmas earlier leaks that he was unhappy about the low level of nursery education. As a result there will be a manifesto commitment to move towards universal provision. Finally, last Saturday, Mr Major struck a studiedly conciliatory note towards the unions.

Mr Major's apparent takeover may, however, be more presentational than actual. Without Mr Patten's history of confrontation, and with a track record of wanting to enhance teachers' status, the Prime Minister is in a stronger position to get the message across that the Government wants the teachers on side. Its own reforms have brought parents and teachers together and last summer's confrontation over testing, if anything, consolidated that.

And Mr Major clearly regards educational standards as key to his 'back to basics' agenda. Whether because he himself was unhappy at school - which he was - or because he did not have the educational opportunities of most of his colleagues, he has stressed the importance of education as a central instrument of his classless society since the very moment of the Tory leadership campaign in November 1990. It is not surprising, therefore, that he should adopt such a high profile on education.

So Mr Major and Mr Patten may not now differ that much over policy. Which is just as well, because there is still trouble ahead. Opting out of schools, for example, has scarely caught on in the North. The right wants a more robust internal education market with vouchers, free competition and the creation of more non-council schools.

The right is also suspicious that 'value added' league tables - which would take account of social factors for schools in deprived areas - may water down the original purpose of those tables. The Government remains caught between the attractions of a full-blooded right-wing agenda and a continued role for education authorities.

The Dearing report marks a decisive step forwards in sorting out the related mess that had been created both in the education syllabus and government-teacher relations. But there is still no single strain of thought being brought to bear on the problems of making sense of the organisation of education. The constant tensions in Tory education policy over how to drive up standards - by using national directives or leaving it to competition among schools - have yet to be resolved. Indeed, the circular issued by Mr Patten on discipline this week shows that dirigisme is still alive and well.

And, as Mr Major shows every sign of appreciating, the need to find answers is urgent. The Government will have few alibis, come the next general election, if its education reforms are not seen to be working. After 14 years it is harder and harder to blame the permissive Sixties and previous Labour governments for all that is wrong with Britain's education system.

Andrew Marr is unwell.

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