Fine words gloss over missing substance

14th November 1997 at 00:00
The Government's plans to raise achievement will fail because it proposes to entrust them to the institutions that have undermined standards over the past 30 years, according to a right-wing critique from the Centre for Policy Studies.

Local authorities and teacher- training establishments - both at the heart of the bureaucracy intended to oversee the Government's standards drive - have caused many of our current educational problems, argues Anthony o'Hear in a response to the recent White Paper, Excellence in Schools. Yet both have been given a key role, local authorities in setting targets and monitoring schools' progress, and teacher-trainers in extending training throughout the profession.

Professor o'Hear dismisses the White Paper's talk of "excellence" as "superficial advertising-speak, glossing over an absence of thought beneath". He says true excellence, like that of composer Schubert and cricketer Shane Warne, is hard for any education system to handle and, however good the schools, impossible to guarantee. He prefers to speak of "good, old-fashioned, well-earned success".

But he acknowledges that the White Paper does address the question of failure in the basics and does show determination to do something about it. He says: "Indeed it is rather more robust in some respects than the Conservatives had been." He praises the Government for proposing "nothing less than a pedagogical revolution in primary schools", with a return to phonics, spelling and punctuation and, in maths, whole-class teaching, mental arithmetic and tables.

However, he criticises the drive to centralisation while jettisoning selection and diversity. The effect of the proposals to undo Tory reform in the direction of school independence will undoubtedly be to reduce standards in popular and high-achieving primary schools and reinstate the community comprehensive as the norm at secondary level, he says.

He expresses pity for the teacher in the post-Excellence in Schools world, with at least six agencies "claiming and being accorded the right to pontificate and legislate about teaching quality" - the Office for Standards in Education, the Teacher Training Agency, the School Standards and Effectiveness Unit, the Standards Task Force, the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency and a general teaching council.

"To a plain man, one agency in charge of standards is quite enough," says Professor o'Hear. "Schools and heads should be in charge of their own standards on a day-to-day basis, and their performance judged by their exam results, and scrutinised by OFSTED.

"The rest is so much paper, so much bureaucracy, so much vested interest, and for the teacher so much intrusion, so much form-filling, so much distraction from his or her proper task."

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