After the Act - a decade of change

27th November 1998 at 00:00
Diane Hofkins considers the lasting legacy of Kenneth Baker's 1988 Education Reform Act

When the late Sir Keith Joseph became Education Secretary in 1981 he was amazed to discover how little power the "holder of his office" had to influence what happened in schools.

Seven years later his successor, Kenneth (now Lord) Baker, changed all that with the 1988 Education Reform Act. It brought in unprecedented central control, which has continued to grow over the 10 years since it became law. The ERA's innovations are now so much part of the educational landscape that it can be hard to remember they have only been in place for less than a decade. It brought in the national curriculum and testing at seven, 11 and 14; local management of schools; opting out; parental choice; and the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority.

For primary schools, the national curriculum and its testing regime surely brought the biggest change by far. No one who was teaching at the time will forget the overwhelming amount of material they had to learn. Many felt that their freedom had been lost and their professionalism compromised. Those who were Year 2 teachers in 1991 and had to struggle with the first, highly complex, Standard Assessment Tasks which took six weeks to conduct, deserve retroactive combat pay. Plans to assess all nine subjects in this way were quickly abandoned.

Ironically, officials drew up such a detailed assessment structure, based around "normal" classroom activities, because that was what educationists insisted upon. They wanted the whole curriculum to be valued, not just the basics. National tests were gradually simplified into the paper and pencil tests of today, focusing on the 3Rs. But the overload led to overwork, anger and even boycotts of the tests as teachers struggled to fit a quart into a pint pot and the system reached boiling point.

Perhaps the national curriculum, even after being slimmed down in 1994, was too prescriptive, too massive and based too heavily on secondary school subjects. But what it did was to offer "a great vision for children growing up in the 21st century" of a broad and balanced curriculum to which every child, rich or poor, was entitled, says education inspector and consultant Bill Laar. Mr Laar, like others, fears that the present Government's decision to release schools from teaching the detail of the national curriculum in subjects such as history and music so they can concentrate on the basics, will lead us into the 21st century with a 19th century curriculum.

Concerns are growing that, once again, the "haves" in the well-off suburbs will have a rich education, while the "have nots" will get "reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic" - a worry shared by Kenneth Baker himself, in an interview with The TES early this year. Professor Colin Richards, of the University College of St Martin in Lancaster, says: "The danger is that the independent sector will produce the broad and balanced curriculum."

Says Bill Laar: "It's like A Tale of Two Cities. It's the best of times and the worst of times." He feels the quality of teaching has never been better, but the curriculum has been impoverished.

To David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, the ERA's legacy is "one of continual change". There has been a great deal of argument over curriculum and testing, with schools never knowing where they stand. "Primary schools are yearning for a period of consolidation. They are moving into a second decade of confusion. They want to get on with the job - maintaining standards and delivering as broad a curriculum as possible. "

The legacy of the 1988 Act has got to be judged in part by what came before it, which was, says one professor, "a laissez-faire mess". Teaching of subjects such as science and history was patchy. There was much exciting teaching going on, but also quite a bit of coasting. The only mandatory subject was RE. Parents had no benchmarks by which to judge their children's progress. The 1988 Act opened up the "secret garden" of the primary curriculum to the public, and, importantly, made schools far more accountable.

Schools, for their part, have become more outward-looking, and more collegiate. Teachers plan as a whole school. No longer do children end up studying the Romans three years running, at the same level.

Mr Laar believes that setting attainment levels for "average" children of particular ages was the 1988 Act's most significant legacy. That made it possible to pinpoint national standards for primary schools for the first time. It was the first link in a new chain of accountability, manifested in national tests, with OFSTED inspection as the logical extension. It made possible the present Government's ambitious literacy and numeracy targets, which are causing so much pressure to be placed on teachers today.

But at the end of all of this, "we still don't know if standards have risen, fallen or remain the same," says Professor Richards, a former HMI. The constant changes in the national tests and the abolition of the Government's Assessment of Performance Unit have madesuch a judgment impossible.

According to Jim Campbell, professor of education at Warwick University, standards have remained pretty much the same since the 1960s, judged by international comparisons.

The real success story, he says, is primary science, where both quality and quantity have improved measurably since 1989. Teachers' assessment skills - their ability to judge where a child is and how to move them on - have also got dramatically better.

In Wales, the national curriculum brought in universal teaching of Welsh - a highly ambitious and controversial decision. The relative success of this huge commitment to making a whole nation bilingual holds fascinating lessons for language teaching.

One thing the Conservatives insisted on in launching the ERA was that they would lay down neither the amount of time to be spent on different subjects, nor the way they are taught. Ten years on, with the literacy and numeracy strategies, the Labour Government is doing both those things. But Kenneth Baker takes the credit for making this possible because he first "trampled in the vineyard" of the curriculum 10 years ago.

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