The Education Secretary has created a command and control model of education which hinders schools and does nothing to help raise standards or enhance teachers' professionalism, argues David Willetts.
Many teachers are telling me how they have come back from the half-term break already exhausted, irritated and frustrated by the demands being placed upon them. The teacher with 22 years experience who wrote in The TES last week spoke for many when she complained about the ceaseless flow of regulations and initiatives. That teacher had always supported the Labour party and many of her criticisms of this Government were also levelled against Conservatives during our years in office.
But instead of getting better things appear to be getting worse. I study at close quarters all of Education Secretary David Blunkett's initiatives (so I understand and sympathise with what teachers have to wade through) and a clear pattern emerges. That pattern is a command and control model in which instructions flow down from the Department for Education and Employment to local authorities and schools as if they were junior outposts of a colonial administration. That is no way to raise educational standards and enhance the professionalism of teachers.
Take the literacy hour for example. We do need to focus on raising literacy standards, and I do not doubt Mr Blunkett's personal belief in the importance of raising standards. But a lot of teachers have serious practical criticisms of the literacy hour. It is very prescriptive about the structure, but when it comes to practical implementation teachers are left scrabbling around for the right resources. Many have been working late into the night tracking down the best texts. I sometimes think the photocopier has become the hub of Mr Blunkett's model school.
Then there is the class-size pledge. We Conservatives were getting nowhere trying to argue that class sizes were not very significant. The fact is that most parents and teachers believe that size does matter. But I am seeing too many examples of the absurd consequences which follow from taking a desirable objective and turning it into a rigid ban on classes over 30. I have visited schools which have achieved high standards despite some classes exceeding 30, perhaps using the per capita funding to employ more classroom assistants. Now they are having to turn away children and, at the same time, sack assistants so that for much of the time the classes are taught in larger groups than before. This cannot make sense.
Perhaps the fundamental mistake is to have launched so many of these initiatives without thinking through the human resources policy needed to make them work. Responsible education policy-making involves working with what you have, rewarding success, helping where it is not working and yes, in the last resort, making it easier for people finding themselves in the wrong career to leave teaching.
We will scrutinise the Government's Green Paper on modernising the profession with great care but the fact is that it has got itself into a terrible muddle having only embarked on the exercise in response to the expectations generated by its summer spending announcement.
The School Standards and Framework Act is much more to do with frameworks than standards. Many secondary schools in particular were seizing the freedoms of grant-maintained status and are now having to divert their energies into fruitless changes in status as they come under local authority control. Local authorities themselves are having to recruit more staff (as the back pages of The TES show every week) simply to implement the plans they are having to write to satisfy the DFEE.
The trouble is that if you have so many initiatives and plans you end up having no priorities. As one headteacher confided to me recently, the only way she could focus on raising standards was by ignoring most of the letters arriving on her desk from the department each week.
What I find extraordinary is that in many ways this Government is repeating mistakes that we were, rightly or wrongly, accused of making. But perhaps I am in a better place to learn and reflect on what worked and what did not than Mr Blunkett.
We will certainly not be rushing into a host of detailed policy proposals of our own. Above all, we have to listen and learn. Only then can we turn to effective policy work. But already the outlines of our approach are becoming clear. We need less heavy-handed intervention. We need more freedom for our schools, especially when they can show that they are doing well. Above all teachers are entitled to expect a degree of self-restraint from ministers responsible for education - a ceaseless flow of initiatives and instructions from the centre does not help anyone.
David Willetts is Conservative education spokesman