As a public service funded by taxpayers' money, it is perfectly reasonable for ministers to set goals to ensure these priorities are met. The problem comes when national objectives come into conflict with pupils' interests and the rights of teachers.
The Government's new GCSE indicator, by which schools are judged according to the proportion of pupils who achieve five A*-C grades, including English and maths, is a good example. The measure was introduced to counter concerns about vocational qualifications, deemed to be equivalent to five good GCSEs, which many schools have used (perfectly reasonably) to bolster their position in the league tables.
A consequence of the new measure is that many schools that worked so hard to improve their performance by focusing on vocational education have now slithered back down the table. This snakes and ladders approach to school improvement shows the shortcomings of a system that is over-reliant on crude league tables as a way of measuring performance.
Both objectives are right. We need better vocational options that are genuinely equivalent in value to academic courses, and we need to ensure pupils leave school with the right skills in English and maths. What we do not want is a pupil's prospects of gaining a good pass in their favourite subject to be damaged by the school's own priority to ramp up English and maths scores.
The introduction of performance management has compounded the problem. All teachers now expect their performance rating to be based on results. If a child is taken out of history to attend a booster class in maths, the history teacher is entitled to feel aggrieved. Good school leaders will see it as their responsibility to act in the interest of their pupils and ensure staff are treated fairly.
But, as our page 1 story reports, there are bound to be suspicions. The real worry is that some teachers, fearing their careers might suffer, will be made to feel like second-class citizens. Teaching is a collegial profession and depends on sharing responsibility and a sense of equal worth. We must not allow the belief to grow that (as George Orwell might have put it) some subject teachers are more equal than others.