Ministers' tactics exposed

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
The drafting of the national curriculum was remarkable for a high degree of interference by ministers and internal warfare between civil servants and Government-appointed advisers, according to a new analysis by Michael Barber, of London University's Institute of Education.

Professor Barber, an influential adviser to both Gillian Shephard and the Labour party, believes ministers sowed the seeds for the national boycott of tests in 1993 by their flawed approach to creating a new curriculum.

In a book published this week, he gives examples of direct political interference: Kenneth Baker, when Education Secretary, insisted on a powerful dose of English history and plenty of poetry. Kenneth Clarke, one of his successors, directed that history should end 20 years before the present day.

Alongside ministerial dictats, there existed a sub-plot of conflicts between civil servants, who wanted greater central control, and the external advisory bodies, the National Curriculum Council and the School Examinations and Assessment Council.

Professor Barber, dean of new initiatives at the London Institute, tells how civil servants shadowed every action of the NCC and SEAC, using a range of bureaucratic devices. "One tactic was to begin an intervention in a meeting with words such as 'Ministers would be reluctant to see' or 'Ministers could not countenance'."

According to the book, ministers from Mr Clarke onwards packed the NCC and SEAC councils with representatives from the Centre for Policy Studies and other right-wing pressure groups. "The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere reached a climax in the summer of 1991 when, within a week, Duncan Graham and Philip Halsey [chief executives of the two advisory bodies] were sacked and replaced respectively by David Pascall and Brian [Lord] Griffiths. Both of these had been influential advisers at 10 Downing Street and both were linked with right-wing pressure groups."

The appointment of Lord Griffiths, in particular, was a disaster, says Professor Barber, who suggests that John Patten's defence of the English tests may have been based on an inadequate briefing from him.

Mr Patten, the then Education Secretary, said in a radio interview at the time that the tests had been tried out in hundreds of schools. In fact, the 1993 tests were based on pre-trial testing in 32 schools.

The ineptness of Mr Patten, says Professor Barber, was a major factor in English teachers' boycott of all national curriculum tests.

A new era in policy-making was ushered in with the appointments of Geoffrey Holland as permanent secretary at the Department for Education, and of Sir Ron Dearing to head the joint body created from the NCC and SEAC. Sir Ron was appointed, although ministers had earlier promised Mr Pascall the position.

The National Curriculum: a study in policy by Michael Barber is published by Keele University Press. Chief inspector Chris Woodhead and Sheila Dainton , an assistant general secretary of the Association for Teachers and Lecturers have contributed chapters

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