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Four ways to find devils in the detail

As the silly season approaches, I feel the threat of apoplexy rising. I know there is a larger lunacy which lurks just below the surface of the educational news, especially in the protracted run-up to a general election.

I am well aware the worst is yet to come as ambitious party hopefuls ply their leaders with embryo manifestos. I know this - and yet I still feel my gorge rising at the crassness of those in authority.

Let me give four examples. First, nursery vouchers. I can see some merit in trying to redistribute the money now spent on pre-school activities so that all children benefit instead of some, provided there is a clear objective of universal access.

But as ever, the devil is in the detail. Any scheme would need careful piloting, careful evaluation and planned budgeting. Instead what we get is a token pilot and then, without even a pretence of any systematic evaluation, bang! - legislation to enforce a nationwide scheme. You might think it was a spoof example of bad government for a Civil Service exercise.

Yet this is what our leaders are attempting. They've had a setback in the House of Lords and every right-minded person will hope they come unstuck if they try to recover their position when the Bill returns to the Commons. The point is, whatever you may think of vouchers as an idea, the way the Government has acted defies reason. What was the pilot scheme for?

If it was to see in advance what did and did not work, there must now be a pause to examine the evidence before rushing on - unless, that is, this was one of those experiments which are doomed to success because they are directly driven by electoral politics.

Point number two: initial teacher training. What nonsense to pretend every teacher in hisher first post can be pre-equipped with the full armoury of skills to be a paragon from day one! Who expects this of a newly-qualified doctor? Don't such doctors have to undergo years of further training? Why was the probationary year for teachers abolished? Because resources were never used to make it a meaningful part of the totality of teacher training.

Instead of reforming it - extending and deepening it - Kenneth Clarke (if I remember rightly) tossed it aside. Now, the admirable Anthea Millett is going to put all this right by imposing a new teacher training curriculum from on high. What nonsense!

Point three: the Woodhead phenomenon. This is an inevitable consequence of education being nationalised. The Secretary of State has been set up as a super head teacher. "He brings me solutions where other people bring me problems" - Mrs Thatcher's tribute to David Young as he climbed the greasy pole in the 1980s, explains the rise and rise of Chris Woodhead. He is endowed with a spurious, but invaluable, certainty. Twenty years ago he was equally certain, but of different things - as a teacher trainer in Oxford he was an enthusiastic progressive: now he knows what's what, and it is that whole-class teaching is best.

The old idea that judgments should be based on robust evidence is a tiresome diversion of effort. What super-head Gillian Shephard needs is something simple and cut and dried. It will be the same with David Blunkett.

Who listens to Robin Alexander when he looks at the international comparisons and the flimsy research on which weighty findings are based? Or when he insists on what we all know to be true: that education takes place in a context and that the context has to be studied as well as the pedagogy?

Point four: books. Not books again? Not those boring figures which show primary schools in England and Wales only spend on average 27 pence a week on books for each pupil? We know all about that, it comes out every year.

I suppose this brings me nearest to apoplexy because it stands in the craziest conjunction with all the bally-hoo about standards of reading and other basic education. Ask any think-tank: how best could we plan to lower standards? Increase class sizes? Not bad. Change the curriculum every five minutes? Fine.

But the winner would be the one adopted over 25 years and more. Shave the money for books each year - cut the library resources and class books, keep books till they are almost disintegrating, rely more on the photo-copier and less on real books. "Real books?" Sorry, I didn't mean to be controversial.

Stuart Maclure is a former editor of The TES.

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