Doctor prescribes a cure for prescription

Biddy Passmore

The researcher who suggested earlier this summer that IQ tests should replace public exams has now proposed that schools be encouraged to opt out of the national curriculum.

Dr James Tooley, of Manchester University's Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, thinks he has found a way to free schools from the constraints of the curriculum: a section in the 1988 Education Reform Act allowing schools to opt out of it for "development work or experiments".

"Almost any change to a school's curriculum can be described as 'development work' so this wording should not create difficulties," writes Dr Tooley in the latest issue of the journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a right-wing think-tank.

The educational right-wing has always been opposed to detailed central prescription of the curriculum.

Under the clause, grant-maintained schools can apply for exemption direct to the Secretary of State, while other maintained schools have first to apply to their local education authority.

"Any school could opt out," Dr Tooley says, "but it would be particularly attractive to those who saw a curriculum 'niche' that could bring about increased demand, or improve the quality of education for its students. "

He says independent schools were excluded from the curriculum because they were already subject to market disciplines. Now, with open enrolment and per capita funding, state schools are part of the market, too, and should enjoy the same freedom.

"A safety-net curriculum may be needed for those schools which are not flourishing: a bureaucratic monolith stifles innovation," he writes.

He suggests that the Government should invite applications for this new version of opting-out. However, the Department for Education and Employment showed no inclination to do so this week.

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