Curmudgeon

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
Call me ungrateful, and I hope you will, but the prospect that we have been offered for the next five years an end to curriculum change fills me with horror. I mean it. I can think of only one thing worse than the mayhem of the past five years and that's the prospect of being saddled with another dud curriculum and no means of scrapping it. Five years is a long time. At the end of it, we could find that we are building Trabants.

But, you say, they have got is right this time. I wish I shared your optimism. Maybe there are people at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority of such awesome ability that they can gaze into the future and anticipate the needs of a society that is changing faster than at any time in our lives. Maybe, but I doubt it. Remember who these people are. They are the ones who stayed on at the National Curriculum Council and the School Examinations and Assessment Authority.

Like communist politicians who survived the purges, they didn't get where they are today by virtue of their fearless commitment to telling it the way it is. They are part of the new mediocracy. They are the ones who wolfed their mess of pottage and then asked for seconds.

My scepticism about them as men and women of vision also has something to do with the way they keep talking about going back. Back to traditional standards, back to basics. If that's their view, why stop at five years? Why not make it 10 or 20? Why change, ever?

The problem, to be fair, lies not in the people, but in the system. Once you have decided to centralise the curriculum, you have created the conditions for a whole cellarful of hostages to fortune.

What we now have is not a national curriculum, but a nationalised curriculum. It is the only area of government policy where something that was once in private hands has been taken over by the state. The examination boards used to operate a relatively free curriculum market. They were, at least in recent years, flexible, fast-moving and responsive. They provided a way of allowing the curriculum to evolve rather than lurch from one ministerial announcement to another.

Whenever they step out of line now, the Government's response is to threaten them with amalgamation. What this government seems to want is a state monopoly in assessment. Unable to impose its will, it snipes from the sidelines.

The most recent offence committed by the boards is that of being inconsistent in their awards at GCSE. This is a particularly sensitive issue because it destroys the illusion that assessment can be an exact science if only those naughty teachers would do what they are told.

What's the answer? One examination board for the whole country and we will never know that all the grades were wrong. If it happens, it will be the first cover-up in history to be announced before it takes place.

The key question about the Dearing curriculum, then, is this. Can it be sustained or will it, like the Berlin Wall, come crashing down and engulf us all?

If it stays in place, the only consolation will be occasional trips to Checkpoint Charlie where we can look longingly across the wall to places like the Channel Islands where they are able to pick and choose, or the independent sector where they "only do the bits that are any good".

It has something to do, I am told, with choice and diversity.

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