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For 10 years schools have been burdened with one government initiative after another. Have they really helped raise standards? There is a way we could find out, says Sir Peter Newsam

Just suppose that the handful of people responsible for the direction of this country's educational affairs were to gather together at Chequers and ask themselves the following question: "Have school standards improved over the past 10 years?" That there has indeed been some improvement in standards over the decade should not be hard to establish. Some things have got better, some worse. Improvements, where they have occurred, might have been greater or taken a different form; but, on balance, improvements there have certainly been.

Once assured of that, the little group at Chequers might go on to ask the key question: "How far has a decade of legislation contributed to those improvements?" Such a question is not as difficult to answer as it may sound. State schools have a control group against which to measure their performance. Independent schools have largely remained free to go their own way. So have state schools - which have received the full dosage of legislation - done better than, as well as or less well than the independent schools which have not?

Two ways of measuring this suggest themselves. First, with the different starting points of the two sets of schools always in mind, it should be possible to establish, on the usual output measures, whether there has been any significant difference between the improvements achieved by each over the decade. The second measure is the market one. On the consumer-knows-best-about-quality principle, how have people been choosing in recent years?

If, on expert advice, the Chequers group satisfied themselves that there had been a marked and differential, legislatively-induced, improvement in favour of state schools over the past decade, there would be no more to be said. The croquet lawn would beckon. But if the evidence suggested that this huge and expensive legislative effort had had no such effectI?

This would be a dangerous moment. Confronted by policies of their own devising which are found not to be working well, politicians tend not to behave like doctors. When pouring brandy down the throats of the wounded and daily enemas were found to kill more patients than they cured, doctors thought of other things to do. Politicians, however, prefer to argue that their policies are not working because the people whose task it is to carry them out have not understood them or are too stupid, lazy or disaffected to carry them out properly.

Broadly, it is this carry-on-with-the-enemas approach that has been adopted towards teachers and their unions, local education authorities, teacher-training institutions and any other part of the education system that finds itself "off-message".

A more fruitful approach might be to consider that educational policies have not been working well largely because, though well-intentioned and conscientiously applied, nearly all the main ones have had unintended consequences, the cumulative effect of which has been to cancel each other out.

If the Chequers group were minded to use it, there is an almost risk-free and certainly cost-neutral way of measuring the effect of past and even future policies. Those education action zones show the way. In these it has been recognised that the full weight of 10 years' worth of initiatives is rather too much for schools with the greatest social, economic and educational problems to bear.

This is leading to an odd situation. It is schools at the top of the pile, the independents, and those at the bottom which find themselves either wholly or partly relieved of this burden. That leaves most schools in the middle. Why not give some of them a chance to show what they can do if left to themselves? Create four or five Initiative Free Zones.

These zones would be selected from average-performing areas. For the sake of auld lang syne, these might well be local authority areas in which teachers, governors, parents and elected members had agreed to take part. How the scheme would be managed would be for the parties concerned to agree. For its part, the Government would agree to an initial life of five years for each IFZ.

During this time, a number of statutory requirements now affecting the way schools operate would be suspended. Exactly which requirements would be affected would be for discussion but they would presumably include such items as the national curriculum, inspection arrangements and matters affecting the day-to-day running of schools.

These zones would also be free to take part in or leave alone any initiatives that emerged over the next five years. In this respect at least they would be on level terms with independent schools.

They would be cost-neutral but entitled to their share of the cost of the statutory services no longer applying to them and of the education initiatives - some of which are likely to be sensible and well worth buying into - that have yet to emerge.

Such are the bare bones of a proposal. If all the statutory and other efforts made by governments over the past 10 years have done no better for the schools affected by them than the independent schools have managed on their own, the risks associated with a venture of this kind would be small. And just suppose that schools in the zones did as well as or better than schools elsewhere; there would be a lesson here for policy-makers and the Treasury surely?

On the other hand, the absence of the army of measures designed to prod schools and authorities into improvement might cause teachers in the zones to become disheartened and at a loss as to how to teach properly, thereby causing their school to fall behind improvement being achieved elsewhere. Were that to happen, cries of "shape up or else..." could resound once more in those zones. That low munching sound in the corner would just be me, eating my hat.

Sir Peter Newsam is a former director of the Institute of Education, University of London.

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