Imagine there's no curriculum

15th February 2008 at 00:00
It's easy if you try. But will an investigation by MPs free schools from its control or end up as just another report gathering dust?

Teachers probably choked on their cornflakes when they heard the news that a group of politicians will consider arguments for scrapping the national curriculum.

The same group will shortly tell ministers what they should be doing about testing, having been presented with reams of evidence that it is warping teaching.

So, on a scale of one to 10, how excited should teachers be? The answer depends on your opinion of the politicians, all members of the Commons' Select Committee for Children, Schools and Families.

The committee, composed of 14 MPs from different parties, is in charge of scrutinising the Government's schools policy and recommending changes.

It is now investigating an ambitious set of topics. As well as examining testing and the national curriculum, it is holding an inquiry into children who have gone "under the radar", in addition to its bread-and-butter work of checking on schools ministers and Ofsted.

But will its proposals be accepted by the Government, let alone make a difference to teachers?

The committee's record is mixed, and its meetings in warm rooms at Portcullis House in Westminster can be heavy-going.

However, anyone doubting its influence should consider two words: synthetic phonics. The committee's 2005 report on teaching reading led directly to the Rose Review, which in turn led ministers to prescribe the teaching of synthetic phonics in every primary school.

Barry Sheerman, the Labour backbench chair of the committee since 2001, says: "I think we have made quite a profound difference, and we have made more difference because we haven't just been political parties slagging each other off."

Nick Gibb, now Conservative shadow schools minister, made his name as a committee member who led the campaign for synthetic phonics. He says cross-party co-operation was essential to his success.

"I basically bored the Labour members silly about reading," he says. "In the end, because I was a good attender and because I got on with them, they said we could do this small report. It was a favour to me, an indulgence, because they knew this was a real passion."

This non-adversarial approach can stretch into the committee's dealings with ministers. Robert Hill was Tony Blair's political secretary and special adviser to Charles Clarke when he was Secretary of State for Education. He says: "It has been one of the stronger committees because it hasn't always performed by giving the Government a good kicking. It hasn't pulled its punches, but when the Government has got it right it has said so. That's why it is taken seriously."

But for some, this seemingly easygoing relationship between the committee and those it is supposed to hold to account is a problem.

Martin Rogers from the Children's Services Network, a local authority-funded think tank, says: "They do some really useful work and bring attention to issues that are otherwise neglected. But I don't think they are as effective as they could be. It's all very light-hearted knockabout stuff, but I have never seen the committee grill someone from the department as vigorously as I have seen in other committees.

"The number of times I have sat there frustrated thinking, 'Why didn't they get into this?' or 'Why didn't they ask that?'"

Mr Rogers believes that a lack of resources and time are the key problems. So does Phil Willis, a member of the committee between 1999-2001 who became the Liberal Democrat education spokesman and now chairs the Innovation, Universities and Skills committee.

"My members work flat out covering their brief and I believe Barry Sheerman's will be exactly the same," he says. "I don't think we have enough resources."

Mr Willis also argues that for most of the past decade the education select committee faced another huge obstacle. "Schools policy was always written by Andrew Adonis (junior minister for schools) and the No 10 policy unit and imposed on the department," he says. "The agenda was centrally driven, without looking at the evidence, so the influence of the committee was minimal, to put it mildly."

The committee's inquiry into the national curriculum will explore whether it should exist, its purpose, and how best to balance central prescription with flexibility at classroom level.

But teachers expecting it to trigger a change in the existing regime may well be disappointed. The testing inquiry, which heard its last evidence this week, is likely to reveal the limits of the committee's influence.

The vast majority of written submissions have called for reform, but government witnesses have defended their position.

Achieving consensus within the committee will be one thing. But changing official policy, assuming the committee members want to, will be quite another.

As Mr Gibb points out: "Testing is such a high-octane issue that the Government will want to carry out any reform according to its own assessment. I am not convinced that the committee's report will have much influence."

- The deadline for submitting written evidence on the curriculum to the committee is March 17. A guide can be found at www.parliament.ukdocumentsuploadwitnessguide.pdf

Hits and misses by the select committee


Reading Its 2005 report prompted the Government to set up the Rose Review, which led to synthetic phonics becoming compulsory.

Admissions Ministers adopted its 2006 recommendations, making schools act in accordance with admissions codes rather than just "in regard" to it. They also allowed local authorities to set up community schools. Both concessions helped persuade rebel Labour MPs to back Tony Blair's school reforms.

Early years Its 2001 report recommendations for a better trained and qualified early years workforce were accepted by the Government.


Special educational needs Ministers turned down two consecutive attempts from the committee, in 2007 and 2008, to construct a national framework setting out the support available for children. It also rejected recommendations for overhauling a system the committee said was "not fit for purpose".

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