Uneducated, but no empty head: As Sir Ron Dearing steps into the national curriculum firing line, he tells Colin Hughes how he will handle the conflicting demands

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The Independent Online
SIR RON DEARING is not a man to be unduly daunted by taking over the second most powerful job in education, as he did this week. After all, he once took control of the Post Office (turnover pounds 3bn, 200,000 employees) without any background in business.

Now, as joint chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, he has stepped into the middle of a raging battle between the teaching profession and the Government, with a brief to sort out the most complex and demanding set of policies ever introduced in the nation's schools.

Teachers will be relieved to learn that Sir Ron wants to listen and respond to their frustrations at curriculum overload and testing. But he has no intention of dithering: after three days in the post, he was ready yesterday to draw a readable map of how he plans to navigate the foundering national curriculum consensus towards a safer haven.

The fact that his appointment has been so widely welcomed by teachers' leaders is curious, because hardly any of them know much about his background - educationally or personally. Probably they are merely relieved at the appointment of a man who carries no political baggage, only a justified reputation for clear-minded and decisive management, sensitively executed.

So where is he coming from? Brought up in Hull, Ronald Ernest Dearing was evacuated to the pit village of Thornein south Yorkshire, and then to Doncaster. He won a scholarship, and attended three different grammar schools. Being billeted at first with a miner's widow, he found out about poverty at first hand: he remembers how the household bought cakes on Tuesday, stale from the Saturday bake.

At school he was no academic star (he was in the third of four sets) and left at 16 to work in a labour exchange. But he went on studying, did national service with the RAF, took an economics degree at Hull aged 20, and moved up to the civil service administrative ranks at 24 by open examination. A more meritocratic ascent would be hard to find.

The next quarter of a century was spent rising to the role of ministerial policy adviser, with a year at the London Business School during his mid-thirties. He may not have had much experience of business when he was asked to take over the role of Post Office chairman at 49, but he had been helping to guide the government's industrial and energy policy for a couple of decades.

At the Post Office, Sir Ron quickly had to win the respect of managers and staff who suspected that he was 'a Keith Joseph plant'; he succeeded by learning the Post Office culture, and employees' concerns, and then turning them around. In much the same way, he must now steer 400,000 angry teachers on to a new national curriculum course.

But he does not arrive on the education scene with, to use his words, 'an empty head'. He has served most recently as chairman of the higher education academic awards council, and higher education's two funding councils. 'I learnt the great value of extensive consultation before taking decisions in higher education. The obvious route was rarely the shortest route to get there,' he says.

About the only reservation that teachers have registered concerning Sir Ron's appointment at the new schools assessment authority is that he will be a three-days-a-week, part-time chairman - which many observers believe will be too little time to grapple with the intricacies of testing systems and the subject-by-subject burden of curriculum content.

Sir Ron, however, is obviously giving more time to his new task at the outset: this week he is spending most evenings meeting teachers, and part of the weekend discussing his brief with members of the Secondary Heads Association who are meeting in Stockport, Lancashire.

So, after consulting members of the testing and curriculum authorities, he hopes next week to be sending out formal consultation letters to all of the teacher unions, along with the 15 or 20 other bodies most concerned with curriculum decisions.

He has already met four of the teacher unions, and the remaining two will troop in to his office before the end of the month. The second phase is likely to be a series of regional meetings during May and June with 'modest numbers' of heads and teachers, to clarify their complaints and solutions.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, has asked Sir Ron to make initial proposals in restructuring the curriculum and testing by the end of July - but that will be followed by a third phase of consultation, involving letters being sent direct to all schools.

His brief is not so open that it would allow him to contemplate abandoning the national curriculum, or testing. He clearly would not want to go that far, anyway. 'I think the national curriculum is right, and there is a consensus that it's right.

'There is also a consensus among teachers that there is a problem of overload, and over-prescription, and I'm very willing - indeed, anxious - to investigate that, and come forward with thought-through conclusions to enable teachers to have more room to make their own curriculum decisions, and ensure that the national curriculum does not take up all of their time.'

On testing, his mind is refreshingly open: 'I come here wanting to do an honest job, and to find out what works best. To do that, I need to hear the evidence about what works best. It's because of that, that I place so much emphasis on consultation.'

One of his greatest surprises, starting on the steep educational learning curve, has been to discover how infrequently children are tested today. 'I come from a generation in which testing came with the daily milk. We had a fortnightly order, and two marks for the term's work - one assessing the whole term and another for the tests at the end of each term.'

Teachers will, however, be encouraged to learn that Sir Ron is not sold on the idea that all tests must take the same form in every subject. He accepts, for example, that English literature might be better assessed through coursework than simplistic tick-the-box question papers, and that in other subjects, such as technology, it may be more important to assess pupils' practical abilities.

While accepting, however, that public measurement of performance often seems unjust and painful (particularly to teachers in difficult inner-city schools), he recognises that there is a public interest. In the longer term, therefore, Sir Ron would like to develop tests that enable schools to measure the value which they add to pupils' learning between each stage; although, as he learnt in higher education, 'measuring the value added is one of those things that doesn't seem difficult until you start.'

In other words, he has rapidly understood that, in the modern educational world, assessment and testing need to be geared to certain aims, whether that is to diagnose children's learning needs, or to report to parents and teachers on progress. Sir Ron plainly detests the 'sorting by 11-plus' failure that prevailed in his own youth, and the consequent division of young people into those who were academically successful, and those who were good for nothing: 'It was,' he says, 'dreadful - and unfair.'

Most teachers would probably be perfectly content to borrow those words - 'dreadful and unfair' - as a description of their own feelings after implementing a hefty national curriculum with no extra reward, and then being pushed, under protest, into tests that they largely despise.

If he can make teachers feel a little more loved and understood, he will at least gain fairer weather at the outset. Beyond that, parents must pin their hopes on his civil-service brain being as sharply honed as it seems.

(Photograph omitted)