In the interests of stiffer standards

Nicholas Pyke charts the accelerating standards and qualifications debate and sees the birth of a super-quango

Standards fever is with us still. A year of anxious concern and frenzied speculation culminated with the definitive report: Standards over Time from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education.

We were left none the wiser. The evidence shows that exams are just as hard as ever; but, according to the long-delayed document, the evidence is no good. Sprouts from 1975 cannot be compared with potatoes in 1995.

There is doubtless plenty more examination strife to come: sprouts fanatics are not so easily silenced. Chief among them is HM Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, a man whose ability to generate headlines has been a dominant feature of this year.

He ended 1995 with a forthright interview on the BBC's Panorama programme, during which he announced that 15,000 teachers should be sacked. This year saw him continuing the theme with plans for picking out those who might deserve a P45. A new code of practice for inspectors allows them to award a grade 7 to the poorest and a grade 1 to the best. The truly awful must be named to the headteacher and governors.

In May, he published the three boroughs reading report, a damning account of 45 schools in Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets. This suggested that poor leadership, poor teaching and trendy methods were leading to very low standards. Like a number of OFSTED initiatives, it was accompanied by controversy: the boroughs and others claimed that the report was unfairly negative and failed to take a range of background factors into account.

He appeared on Panorama for a second time in June. This edition centred on the Worlds Apart report produced for OFSTED by Professor David Reynolds of Newcastle University and suggested that Britain could learn from Taiwan's use of whole-class teaching, particularly in mathematics.

OFSTED has also been prominent in the launch of the Government's national literacy and numeracy centres, which, it was recently revealed, are working towards a new primary curriculum to raise standards in the inner city.

The publicity surrounding Mr Woodhead was, however, as nothing with that courted by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers at the Ridings School in Calderdale. Come October and its members on the staff were threatening industrial action unless a very large number of pupils - up to 60, according to some accounts - were expelled.

The Ridings quickly became the Hackney Downs of 1996. OFSTED descended, accompanied by the national media. Whereupon the pupils behaved more atrociously than ever. OFSTED issued a report condemning almost every aspect of the school and Calderdale agreed to be inspected as a whole.

December saw the publication of the Standards Over Time research. OFSTED pressed for the report to take a tough line on the current state of public examinations and the result was a time-consuming wrangle with SCAA. In as much as it did ask for tougher, more rigorous A-levels, the report only legitimised what SCAA was intending to do in any case.

This year also saw a forthright attack on Mr Woodhead when one of his former senior inspectors, Colin Richards, accused him of manipulating inspection evidence to blacken the picture of national achievement in primary education. Mr Richards, a senior primary adviser, resigned in March. He returned to the fray in July, attacking Mr Woodhead's use of the three boroughs reading report, saying that no conclusions could be drawn about how much progress or otherwise the pupils were making.

Nor was he alone. Britain's most prestigious centre of teacher training and research, the Institute of Education, denounced the three boroughs report. Not one of its conclusions could be justified from the evidence, said Professor Harvey Goldstein and the director of the institute, Professor Peter Mortimore.

Other education agencies were also muscling in on the standards game. The Teacher Training Agency, for example, began work on its national curriculum for teacher training, the introduction of performance-related funding and a new qualification for subject leaders.

SCAA, meanwhile, has been ensuring that large chunks of the standards debate are conducted on its own ground.

This year's national curriculum tests went ahead, despite the threat of disruption from headteachers. And the results came out, showing, it would seem, substantial improvement at the upper end of primary school. Not that SCAA allowed itself to seem pleased, maintaining the sort of stony countenance now de rigueur.

It is arguably a tribute to HMCI that SCAA cannot afford to be seen as lax on this issue. This is particularly so as its officers scrap for places in the new politically sensitive super-quango: the Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority, to be formed from its merger with the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.

It was also SCAA that handled the biggest report of the year - Sir Ron Dearing's epic review of 16-19 education, which was in its own way all about standards. This made an effort to boost the status of vocational education by stiffening up the content and the assessment regime. He also addressed the range of worries about A-level standards and rather predictably suggested that A-levels must also be stiffened up.

So it is that the past few months have seen SCAA cracking the whip. Calculators will be banned for part of A-level maths; more pre-19th-century literature will be required in A-level literature, and the number of A-level exam boards will be reduced still further - in the interests of comparing standards.

Amid all this the Education and Employment Secretary is obliged to perform a strange and intricate dance: leaping for joy as results improve while simultaneously shaking her fists at the scandal of it all. As Gillian Shephard admits with disarming frankness, the results are bad news for her at least, whichever way they fall.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you