Editorial: Cooked up

14th February 1997 at 00:00
Once upon a time children used the initials YMCA to nickname any particularly unappetising school dinner. It stood for "yesterday's muck cooked again". That would be just as slanderous a description of what John Major and Gillian Shephard served up this week as "the next development in our education policy". But it certainly had more than a dash of dj vu about it. And the fact that much of it was ladled out at Conservative Party Central Office rather than through the machinery of Government gave it a more partisan than educational flavour.

The "crackdown" on A-level exams and exam boards, as the Department for Education and Employment rather piquantly described it, amounted largely to a discussion document on proposals already set out a year ago in Sir Ron Dearing's review of qualifications. The publication of national targets and the requirement that schools set their own annually was announced last autumn and is already included in the Bill currently before Parliament.

There may also be less than meets the eye to Mrs Shephard's promise to give appraisal new teeth. Teacher effectiveness as demonstrated through pupil learning should certainly be central to appraisal; and given the reluctance or inability of some heads to monitor curriculum standards, there may be room to emphasise this through additional statutory requirements. It is not clear, however, how the Education Secretary can say "we will be removing teachers who cannot reach required national standards" unless she proposes to abrogate the responsibilities of their employers.

The promise of new league tables for seven and 14-year-old s may also yet prove to have all the substance of a souffl. Much may depend upon the reception next month of the tables for last year's 11-year-olds. There is already a fear that, for performance tables, more may in fact mean less. Despite the Government's enthusiasm, proliferation may pall, leading to disenchantment with the costs of listing thousands of schools in which only a minority of the general public have any interest at all, and then only in a handful of local schools. There are already signs that national newspapers are questioning whether it is worth devoting to tables the dozens of pages required.

John Major may eventually be glad that in his speech this week he only promised "a new requirement for publication of school tests results at ages 7 and 14", not league tables as such. He then went on immediately to talk about "a new and simple school report which sets out how well a school is doing". Anything that simplifies what governors are required to publish will be welcome to parents and governors alike. But constant additions to these requirements is tantamount to an admission of Government impotence; a recognition that discretion and the power to affect what goes on in schools lies with teachers and governors not the Government. The Prime Minister's much vaunted enthusiasm for school sport, for instance, eventually resulted in little more than a requirement that governors report on their sports policy.

Where the Government has increased its grip on the levers of power over schools in recent years is through the workings of the examination system. It is perhaps for that reason - because this is one real difference they can make - that Mrs Shephard and her School Curriculum and Assessment Authority are determined to press ahead with the splitting of A-levels into two stages: advanced supplementary representing half of a full A-level taken at the end of the first year and the second part, codenamed A2, taken in the second year.

In principle this is a good idea. While ostensibly not rustling the dovecots by tampering with the precious A-level gold standard, it allows students greater choice to follow a broader sixth-form curriculum, to combine academic and vocational studies or to change direction once they have experienced advanced study of their specialist subjects. In practice, in its haste to introduce the new AS by September next year the Government is risking yet another curriculum dbcle. Syllabuses that at the same time have to provide continuity with GCSE, to stand alone as worthwhile half subjects, to prepare students for the demands of the fullblown A-level and beyond and to meet the multifarious demands on modern sixth-form study, cannot be thrown together overnight.

More examinations, greater diversity and the likelihood that more students will venture half a subject or more beyond the conventional three A-levels will also inevitably mean higher costs. Neither Mr Major nor Mrs Shephard seemed to want to say very much about that.

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