Points for Labour to ponder

25th October 1996 at 01:00
Michael Barber tells us that, after Tony Blair's conference commitment to education, teachers and parents should be dancing in the streets (Last Word, TES, October 11). We wonder whether Michael, as Blair's closest educational adviser, could clarify a few points.

He claims that "standards have undoubtedly risen" but that they "fall short of leading competitors such as Germany and Japan, particularly in the core subjects of the national language and mathematics". But what are "standards", and how are they to be measured?

The currency of political rhetoric demands that children's educational experience be distilled into "standards" or "key stage tests". Unfortunately, the reality is much more complex. For example, it is likely that performance in some crucial areas of mathematics - proof, geometry and some aspects of algebraic reasoning, for example - has fallen in relation to a number of countries. This is hardly surprising: the national curriculum has all but eliminated these topics.

We guess that Michael equates standards in mathematics with tests of basic arithmetic skills, where the UK is out-performed by, for example, the Pacific Rim. But does he know that these same countries speak of a "crisis of mathematical skills" and an "obsession with tests", and are deeply dissatisfied with their performance in the crucial areas of mathematical problem-solving and creativity, areas in which UK children do far better?

A simple appeal to "standards" papers over the dreadful cracks that have opened up in our curriculum. A recent report of the London Mathematical Society has illustrated how a generation of students is entering university with little experience of mathematical ideas as a systematic body of knowledge, and has great difficulty in putting together a coherent mathematical argument. Why should they? The past 15 years - ever since the Cockcroft Report of 1982 - have seen a systematic stripping of the mathematics curriculum of these aspects in favour of fragmented lists of "attainment targets" whose primary purpose is not the induction of children into mathematical ideas but a currency for comparing performance on standardised tests and league tables.

Will Michael please explain to Mr Blair that measuring that which is easily measurable will not improve our economic and social fabric any more than grading egg sizes improves their quality?

Michael argues that "denying that there is a standards problem or hoping for a return to the comfortable mediocrity of the past will cut no ice". Maybe so. But who, precisely, does he mean to accuse of comfort in mediocrity?

Does he really want to claim that if morale is low, teachers only have themselves to blame? Shouldn't some of the blame be apportioned to the imposition of a curriculum over which teachers had precious little say? Or the massive funding cuts that schools have suffered throughout the past 15 or so years?

Michael tells us that Blair's agenda is "non-negotiable". Fortunately, academics do not have to accept non-negotiable issues dictated by politicians, particularly when they ask the wrong questions. Bizarrely, it has taken George Walden, a former Tory education minister, to point out in his recent book that any serious attempt to address our educational difficulties must address the central division of our educational system into state and private education. On this, as well as on league tables, key stage tests and attainment targets, Mr Blair and his advisers are strangely quiescent.

CELIA HOYLES RICHARD NOSS Mathematical sciences department Institute of Education University of London 20 Bedford Way London WC1

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