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Reliance on tests may defeat aim

A researcher fears that emphasis on the 3Rs is discouraging efforts to improve school-leavers' work skills. Nicolas Barnard reports

LABOUR'S reliance on tests and its focus on the 3Rs may defeat its aim of creating a highly-skilled, flexible workforce and a learning society, a researcher has claimed.

Teachers risk training pupils to do well in the tests that determine their schools' league table positions, according to Stephen Ball of the centre for public policy research at King's College, London. That leaves children less able to adapt their learning to the demands of a changing global workplace - the very thing Labour wants to achieve.

Professor Ball is writing in the latest issue of the Cambridge Journal of Education. Entitled "Taking Education Really Seriously: Two Years Hard Labour", it is given over to an assessment of Labour's record, two years into office.

The collection of papers begins with a cautious defence by Michael Barber and Judy Sebba of the Department for Education's standards and effectiveness unit. They say it is too early to see results, but that significant progress has been made on the road to Tony Blair's vision of a "world-class education system".

They urge patience and say those engaged in the project must "hold on to the vision and not be put off by critics". Professor Ball is a long-standing critic of market forces in education, arguing that their focus on efficiency and competition - characterised by targets and tests - have squeezed out issues such as equity and social justice.

Professor Ball says ministers at a fundamental level do not understand the process of learning. They talk of creating a knowledge-based, high-skills economy, with education as, in Tony Blair's words, "the best economic policy we have", yet they focus on basic skills in schools. While minsters see themselves as responding to employers' concerns about the lack of skills among recruits, they could be listening to the wrong message, Professor Bell warns.

The Government's national literacy and numeracy programmes and the highly specific targets have encouraged schools to narrow the curriculum at the expense of work that would truly raise the work skills of school-leavers - "cross-curricular, open-ended, real world, problem-solving tasks to encourage group work, creativity, initiative and the application and transfer of learning".

Instead of raising standards, he suggests, these strategies will produce young adults unable to think critically about the problems they may face in their working life.

The test results the Government uses to demonstrate improvement could in reality be proof of something else. Or, as Professor Ball asks: "In terms of economic competitiveness, is what is measured here what is needed?" Labour, Learning and the Economy by Stephen J Ball, of the Centre for Public Policy Research, King's College London, published in the Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol 29, no 2. To order, ring 01256 813000.

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