Here's a radical proposal Prime Minister: do nothing

29th June 2001 at 01:00
In a shopping list for Blair's second term, Roger Adcock pleads for a break from new initiatives and asks for deeper thinking about the purpose of learning

"By education most have been misled, so they believe because they so were bred," wrote John Dryden. Nevertheless, education is considered a Good Thing, not least by our political parties which vie with each other to promise education utopias.

So, with the election behind us, we wait with breathless excitement to discover what grand new upheavals await us.

Credit must be given to successive governments for the progress made over the past 20 years in giving us more resources and in raising literacy and numeracy standards.

However, despite all the changes, real vision has been lacking: no government so far has had a coherent concept of what it means to be educated.

This is understandable, if not excusable. The system is a labyrinth of schools of varying types, age ranges, admission procedures, inequalities, set in the context of local authorities of varying degrees of enlightenment or incompetence. This muddle prompts in governments the urge to initiate ever more structural reforms and central regulation in an effort to tame the beast.

But the result of all this tinkering is further confusion and stress with the main thrust being towards management of the system rather than on the quality of the outcome - except as expressed through mechanistic targets and exam results of dubious worth. More specialist schools or the introduction of "free schools" would serve only to make things even worse.

So what should we be looking for from the new government? The difficulty is that we have to start from where we are, which is a gigantic muddle. So rather than attempt to itemise policies perhaps it would be better to concentrate on demanding more benign and effective management of the system that there is.

Here are some recommendations to start. Readers would no doubt wish to add many more.

* Resources: schools want adequate, fair distribution of funds and an end to one-off handouts and gimmicky financial initiatives. They need a regime which allows for long-term financial planning.

* Stability: governments have a horror of leaving things alone. After this prolonged period of change and innovation, schools need breathing space to consolidate best practice. If the Government must innovate, can we please have a few things done well rather than a host of initiatives that have not been thought through?

* Morale: there is deep scepticism that the Government is listening to those who work in schools, despite numerous consultaions. We are exasperated by the overly prescriptive culture of the Department for Education and Skills. It needs to recognise the proper worth of teachers and the value of governors' dedicated voluntary contributions.

* Differentiation: much change has been aimed at solving purely inner-city problems. Schools want the Government to show a better understanding of the difference between urban and rural needs. It must understand the limitations on what schools in deeply rural areas can do. Also initiatives seem mainly to have secondary, rather than primary, schools in mind.

* Regulation: the Secretary of State has more regulatory powers than ever before. In consequence the DFES will joyfully introduce (or change) regulations on the slightest pretext. Regulations themselves tend to have the knock-on effect of generating more. Regulations should be kept to a minimum and simplified.

* Coherence: part of the problem of overload arises from the divisions and lack of communication between different parts of the DFES. This can lead to duplication of work or inconsistency. More than once the National Governors' Council has had to alert civil servants to what is happening elsewhere in the system.

Of course none of this answers the more fundamental question of what education means or how it might best be achieved. Policies to date have been largely a matter of tinkering with the system.

For the 21st century we need a radical reappraisal. Do we still need economies of scale to provide a wide array of choices on one site? Would we not be better off with smaller schools that would be more socially cohesive and allow parents to choose between schools?

Indeed, given the enormous potential of information technology, is the traditional school still the vehicle best suited to our needs? What should be the balance between a school's educative function and its use as an outpost of social services? Again, the reader will add more questions.

No one party will have the answers and the net needs to be cast widely if there is to be consensus.

The last century produced many distinguished and influential Royal Commissions on education. Another one is overdue to consider independently the shape of the education system for the future and to set it in the context of a philosophical exposition of what it means to be educated.

Perhaps in our climate of testing and targeting a starting point might be some words of Henry Adams: "Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts."

Roger Adcock is honorary secretary of the National Governors' Council. He writes here in a personal capacity

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