Let's not be so frantic

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
This is traditionally the time of year for looking backwards and forwards - without getting into too much of a spin. This week's issue should provide both teachers and policy-makers with plenty of food for thought to digest as they peer into the horizon.

The revelations in the Government's 30-year records (page three) are instructive in this respect. Comprehensive schooling was under challenge, there was a Labour Party offensive against sectarianism and its alleged offshoot, Roman Catholic schools, and there were question marks over schools' assessments of their pupils. Sound eerily familiar? There is indeed nothing new under the sun - and these events, let it not be forgotten, were maturing under a Conservative government.

We also had an instructive reminder last week from Professor Walter Humes who, in his regular TESS column, recalled the seminal book Tell Them From Me which pioneered what is now the commonplace representation of young people's reflections on their school experiences. Tales of missed opportunities, struggles to succeed, irrelevance of the curriculum. Sound familiar?

None of this is to suggest that schools have not moved on. The story told by Fraser Sanderson, president of the Association of Directors of Education, of his early days in the profession when corporal punishment was routine for many pupils is but one illustration of that (Jotter, December 2027).

What we can be sure of in the year ahead is that, despite ministerial rhetoric, new initiatives will emerge and others will be bedded in. Schools will be used to promote nutrition, the arts, sport, citizenship, ICT, home reading, enterprise - accompanied no doubt by czars, champions and co-ordinators. More work will be done to improve the roles of school boards and parents in schools, to implement the post-McCrone settlement, to integrate as many pupils as possible into mainstream classes and to build many more PPP schools. The Executive's lifelong learning strategy should begin to take shape.

It also goes without saying that some deep-seated problems will not be resolved during 2003 - the first two years of secondary will remain as stubborn a stage as ever, there are not enough men going into teaching and the struggle to reconcile ministerial ambitions with classroom realities will be as potent as ever. It will be difficult for the Executive to refrain from proceeding with a battery of initiatives in an election year to feed the insatiable demands of the media - and its political opponents - to be seen to be "doing something".

Ministers should be careful, however. If there is one clear lesson to be learnt from the past 30 years, it is that what schools need desperately is less frantic government. We don't need to go so far as Harold Macmillan in the sixties and call for a period of "masterly inactivity", but what we do need is to avoid whims and wheezes which have often been paraded as carefully thought-out policies and strategies.

Our recent reports about the drives to press ahead with ministerial favourites such as subject setting and enterprise education should act as a warning. They have provoked the response: where's the evidence? Perhaps the most important initiative the Executive could take during 2003 is to re-establish the primacy of properly funded research. Whatever the value of HMI's findings as justifications for policy, they need to be challenged and tested just occasionally.

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