Do we need all this pond life regulation?

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Do we need tea?" asks Mildred Lathbury in Barbara Pym's novel Excellent Women as she is offered yet another cup at a church committee meeting. "It was the kind of question," Pym goes on, "that starts a landslide in the mind."

I was reminded of Mildred Lathbury by an extraordinary speech by Sir Anthony Greener, chairman of the Government's exams watchdog. Quangocrats don't usually question their own existence, even less so the politicians who hand out their jobs, so Sir Anthony's attack on ministers for wasting public money on pointless conferences and strategies that were no more than wish-lists was remarkable.

The head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said he was shocked "by the number of overlapping organisations fishing in the same pond funded in part or wholly by public money". And he called on ministers to slay some sacred cows. Though he stopped short of naming them, his strictures set me thinking about quangos and education bodies.

Take one of the newcomers to the field, the General Teaching Council. This was set up by the Government to raise the status and morale of teachers by giving them a professional body similar to the doctors' General Medical Council.

Three years later, the council is struggling to make its presence felt either in Whitehall or among the profession. Nearly half of teachers rate its performance as unsatisfactory or worse, and last week it issued a code of conduct for the profession which most teachers could no doubt have written themselves. No wonder 45,000 of them have yet to pay their registration fee.

Then there is the Teacher Training Agency, set up by the Conservative government to wrest teacher education out of the hands of trendy university professors by drawing up a national training curriculum. Its other aim is to improve recruitment and it has spent millions advertising the attractions of teaching.

But the growth in the number of recruits has more to do with the success of Ralph Tabberer, the agency's chief executive, in persuading ministers that the best way to enrol more teachers was to pay them training bursaries. Now that the curriculum is in place why can't we leave it to the Office for Standards in Education to check that teacher-training departments are doing their job?

As for Ofsted, it was invented by the Conservatives in the days when suspicious politicians wanted to inspect schools out of existence. At the very least a sleeker, leaner version must be on the way as the chief inspector's plans for a much bigger role for school self-evaluation roll out. And couldn't Sir Anthony's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority do with a spot of trimming, now that the national curriculum is established and the future of secondary school exams is in the hands of Mike Tomlinson's committee?

Finally, there is the Department for Education and Skills, where the 4,500 civil servants are set to increase by 300 this year, though plans for a cull are said to be in train. Just up the road, and fishing in a similar pond, is the Specialist Schools Trust whose membership includes more than half of the secondary schools in England, and which expects to have pulled in nearly all in a couple of years' time.

The trust hands out advice on everything from bidding for money to how to improve your geography results. Leave the secondaries to the trust and the primary schools to local education authorities and the point of all those civil servants is much less clear.

Do we need the DfES?

Letters 25

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