The Government's senior adviser, Sir Ron Dearing, has had the unenviable task of steering the national curriculum through hasty and wide-ranging changes. David Budge tested him with some teachers' criticisms and asked about his forthcoming projects.
David Budge: Many believe that the review of 16-19 education and training has been the most demanding task you have faced as chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Do you agree?
Sir Ron Dearing: Yes. With the review of the national curriculum, we were basically simplifying and refining what already existed. But with the review of 16-19 qualifications, there are difficult questions about fundamentals.
For instance, the question of how to bring so many more people successfully into education and training to meet the new national targets, and how to achieve them without sacrificing standards. I am also much concerned about motivating and helping those pupils who by 14 have lost their way in education.
DB: The Secondary Heads' Association and others feel your key stage 4 proposals don't answer the problem of creating a broad, balanced curriculum up to the age of 16. There is particular concern over General National Vocational Qualification part 1 courses which are perceived as having low status. Short courses are another worry. Do you believe such fears are misguided?
RD: There is now a great deal more freedom for schools to organise a post-14 curriculum which meets the interests and aptitudes of individual pupils. By cutting down what schools are required to teach pupils, we have opened up the opportunity for them to organise their own broad and balanced curriculum. At this age, it is wrong to specify the same curriculum for all: interests are beginning to diverge. The take-up of the GNVQ part 1 pilot has been good, but because we care so much about the quality we are introducing it slowly, carefully and after full piloting. My own view is that we have provided enough options at 14-16 to give scope for a coherant 14-19 approach.
DB: Teachers say you were right to kill off the "tick-list" method of assessment, but many are confused about how to use the new level descriptions. Are you confident this is merely a temporary problem?
RD: The move to level descriptions will cut administrative workload and free teachers to teach. We have already published examples of how to use the level descriptions in the core subjects to guide teachers towards consistent judgments.
DB: How has your perception of the education service and teachers changed since you took over the SCAA chairmanship?
RD: I always recognised their importance: now I know how much our future turns on them. It's my luck to be involved and happily I enjoy working with teachers.
DB: Although teachers, unions, local authorities, governors and parents all contributed to the curriculum review exercises, SCAA's detractors say its key recommendations - on English, for example - have too often reflected the views of right-wing Conservatives. What is your response?
RD: In reviewing the national curriculum, we carried out the largest consultation ever in education in England. And we listened to what we were told. In English, for example, new prominence was given to opportunities to use media sources. The reading lists were cut and in some cases made exemplary. In the final analysis, the views of no one group predominated: we balanced many interests across the whole curriculum. One thing that united us was the central importance of the national language to all achievement.
DB: Another frequently-voiced complaint is that the national curriculum was put together too quickly and then reviewed with undue haste. Would you have liked to have had more time to conduct your reviews - or has a necessity turned into a virtue?
RD: It was teachers who said to me most forcefully that I must move quickly to deal with what was an over-burdened and administratively unmanageable curriculum. I took that as my imperative. And yes, that necessity did turn into an advantage: when all know that time is limited, it can be easier to achieve a common purpose and agreement.
DB: Do you anticipate that there will be a major rewrite of the national curriculum in five years' time, or do you think that only relatively minor modifications will be needed?
RD: We won't know the answer to this until we have carefully monitored how the revised national curriculum works in schools. We already know there are some big questions for the long term - such as teaching a modern foreign language in primary schools, and if so how we might achieve that. I hope we shall be raising our sights about what children can achieve, helped by universal pre-school education.
DB: What do you regard as your greatest achievement to date?
RD: Combining revision of the national curriculum with the launch of the national lottery and surviving (just).
DB: Are there any mistakes you would care to own up to?
RD: Having to put many issues to do with examinations on the back-burner while we tackled the national curriculum and tests problems.
DB: You were 65 in July and it is well known that you have suffered from ill health in the past year; is retirement now on the agenda? How much time have you had for your favourite hobbies of DIY and gardening since taking over the SCAA chairmanship in 1993?
RD: I have now "retired" from all my commitments except education. The answer to the last question is not much, but ill health has its plus points: I now see more of my family, so life is the richer for it.