Never mind the paperwork, feel the quality;Opinion

20th March 1998 at 00:00
Michael Stoten takes issue with the revised national curriculum, arguing that teachers should be left alone to focus on content

Idly following the rather confusing debate about deregulating the primary school curriculum - and looking with a sense of disbelief at the structure of the literacy targets - my mind drifted back to an episode of Yes, Minister. Sir Humphrey sought to bring to book a local authority which, in spite of being highly successful in everything it did, failed to get its paperwork into government offices on time; the cardinal sin being a failure of process rather than result.

I also remember my last employer sending a closely-argued submission to the Audit Commission, seeking reassurance that it would keep its performance indicators under review. The aim was to move towards a position where it measured outcomes as demonstrators of success rather than the processes of reaching them, which were evidently seen as more important. Needless to say, we didn't get an answer to that one.

These little diversions seemed particularly relevant considering just how much teachers must do before even standing up before a class.

There's nothing new in this. Think back to the early Nineties when the first version of the national curriculum provoked cries of teacher overload. Some of us had every sympathy, but not because the content was too great. Our concern was that the amount of planning and recording minimised what was on offer to children and ignored what they could actually learn. Indeed, much of what teachers were capable of teaching was sacrificed at the altar of procedure.

But worse was to follow. The second version, devised by Sir Ron Dearing under instructions from Gillian Shephard, may have introduced some sensible shifting of emphasis. But, under pressure from the unions, the effect was to introduce an even more minimalist curriculum without addressing the real problem of bureaucratic overload.

The result was that government officials who didn't know any better, far too many local authority advisers and some headteachers, all of whom didn't have to slog through it themselves, embraced ever more complex ways of doing something which in reality should have been quite simple. Little seems to have changed under New Labour, and no doubt we'll get more of the same when numeracy targets come along.

In fact, most teachers don't need all this. They may not all be born to the job, but they do have the skills and experience to get straight to the subject in hand and make it work, achieve good results and differentiate between children's needs; all without the inordinate amount of planning and inside-leg measuring required at present.

This appears just now to be a process mainly geared to elicit more and more information about less and less, with a diminishing amount of relevance to the actual objective in hand.

Too much is derived by people who have been taught to distrust anything instinctive, individual or unwritten and who seem to have lost sight of the opportunity of letting good teachers get on with teaching without control.

Now, I don't deny for one minute that there is a significant minority of teachers who don't have these desirable qualities and who won't attain them without help in a much more structured environment. It is they who need to know how to plan and record to give them a foundation on which they can develop their skills.

Why, though, is there such a lust to jam every teacher into the same strait-jacket, which not only constrains their abilities but can also be damaging to those hugely conscientious staff who try to cope with both the curriculum itself (and all that really is necessary to go with it - lesson preparation and making) as well as the curriculum bureaucracy which they can well do without?

If they were freed from the administration, which is cutting into the very art of teaching, they could teach much more depth and breadth of content and we could dispense with most of the argument about the respective merits of one subject over another. Instead, the curriculum has been minimised while its peripheral processes have gained in inverse proportion. That is bad education.

My argument, therefore, is to let teachers and schools be judged on their results. Good ones already do more than successive government aspirations in terms of content and achievement. Any but those who under-perform should be allowed to decide for themselves how they construct their curriculum. They should certainly be spared criticism if they choose to bypass the stifling machinery of curriculum management - providing that what they produce continues to meet or exceed expectations.

I remember a crusty old Yorkshire cricketer who, after scratching together a not altogether elegant century in difficult circumstances in an important game, was accosted by a club member who criticised his batting. "Look in t'book, lad" was the reply and off he went to enjoy a well-earned pint. My plea, therefore, is to let good teachers get on with the job.

Outcomes have to be measured and deregulation of the curriculum demands with it a close examination of just what has been achieved. This has to be done regularly. The present testing regime is inadequate and I know many schools and at least one local authority that regard it as so and test more frequently.

That being the case, year-on-year standardised national curriculum tests to track children properly and to pick up under-performing teachers provide an obvious answer - but, please, not hijacked by theoretical educationists to over-complicate them.

Most politicians think in simple terms, and they have a justifiable expectation that their policies can be adopted in simple terms. In education that has rarely been the case with recent initiatives, which have lost their potential impact as their simplicity of purpose has been lost in the complex mind-sets of those charged with translating them into practice. That has been to the detriment of the very teachers and children they were designed to help.

We've gone through astonishing changes over the past 18 years, most of it necessary and much of it good. Now the time is right to free the major part of the teaching profession to take it further. Most of the groundwork and quality control is in place and now we can provide an opportunity for idiosyncrasy, flexible thinking and instinctive performance.

Michael Stoten is a former chief education officer

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