Ministers must stop re-writing curriculum, says schools expert

David Bell: "Education policy is still driven by short-term firefighting"

Richard Garner
Friday 09 January 2015 01:20
Sir David Bell, who is now vice-chancellor of Reading University
Sir David Bell, who is now vice-chancellor of Reading University

Ministers should be stripped of key decision-making powers on the day-to-day running of schools to end the “ridiculous” situation of MPs with no teaching experience setting the curriculum, according to a former top official in the Education Department.

Delivering a scathing attack on the Government’s ability to manage the teaching system, Sir David Bell will say in a speech today that political interference through key policies have damaged schools.

Sir David, who quit as Permanent Secretary at the DfE after just over a year of Michael Gove’s tenure as Education Secretary, will say: “Education policy is still driven by short-term firefighting, ministerial personalities and electoral politics.”

He will add: “We must end the ridiculous situation where some ministers feel compelled to sit in their offices drafting maths and science curricula – particularly ridiculous if they have never taught a class of children or young people in their life.”

Speaking as president of the Association for Science Education, he will tell its annual conference today that there needs to be a “moratorium” on new education legislation and reform for the lifetime of the next Parliament.

He will also spell out ways in which the running of schools could be “depoliticised” with “monolithic, remote” Whitehall reduced to a more strategic role rather than day-to-day delivery of the service.

The Government’s A-level reforms were designed to add “rigour” but Sir David believes they have left schools with “an out-of-date system” after “five years of permanent revolution in schools”. He will say the current system has echoes of the 1950s with “sixth-formers still specialising in three or four ‘gold standard’ A-levels with two years of study ending in a pass or fail exam”, arguing that an International Baccalaureate-style approach with “broader, deeper” study of a wider range of subjects is needed instead.

Sir David says of the decision to remove marks for practical science from the main A-level and GCSE grades: “I fear universities will be forced to spend more time in the first year getting students up to speed with basic lab experience.”

He will also criticise the previous Labour government for ditching the exams review by former Chief Schools Inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson, who called for a diploma to replace the existing GCSE and A-level system, thus putting academic and vocational education on the same footing.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan has been praised by Sir David Bell

But he praises the approach of the new Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan: “My sense, from outside the schools sector now, is that [she] is less tone deaf to people who can offer intelligent, constructive proposals and critique which, in turn, make a positive contribution to improvement.”

A Government source said: “It’s disappointing to hear a bureaucrat calling for more powers to be taken out of the democratic decision-making process. We are confident, however, that most parents would agree, that when it comes to what their children learn in school, decisions should be taken by people who are answerable to the electorate.” The DfE added that new GCSEs and A-level had been developed by experts – and that practical work would play a bigger role in science exams.

Sir David Bell’s view: five policies which damaged education

Labour’s exams review

Ditching proposals for an overarching diploma covering academic and vocational education meant ministers had ‘bottled’ the chance to put the two on an equal footing.

A-level reforms

These have given us an ‘out-of-date’ system after five years of ‘permanent revolution’ in schools. What they needed was an International Baccalaureate-style approach with more subject breadth and depth.

Teacher training

The switch to school-based training was led by a ‘false ideological fixation’ that university courses were ‘Marxist hotbeds’ and led to the closure of good provision.

Science exams

Removing marks for practical experiments from A-level and GCSE grades was a ‘dangerous experiment’ which could lead to universities providing remedial lessons in practical science.

International students

Theresa May’s proposal to expel all foreign students after they graduate was ‘bizarre’ when we need them to fill high-powered vacancies.

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