Is Sir Richard too radical for the Tories?

26th March 2010 at 00:00
Sykes' big ideas to reform and rebuild could be more than Gove bargained for

The trouble with asking people to go away and think radical thoughts is that they tend to take you at your word. Take Oliver Cromwell. He was happy to let those Leveller chaps sound off about abolishing the monarchy and the Lords, but before he knew it some really extreme proposals were wafting up from Putney - like complete religious freedom, trial by jury and universal suffrage for all adult males, with the exception of servants, of course. Tony Blair must have felt the same way about Frank Field, and Take That about Robbie Williams. The question is, does Michael Gove think similarly of Sir Richard Sykes?

Sir Richard was commissioned by the Conservatives to think big thoughts about the assessment and qualification system in England (pages 14-15). He has not disappointed. A-levels are forensically dismantled: they do not equip students with sufficient knowledge or the ability to synthesise it; they do not allow universities to discriminate among students; they have been undermined by excessive modularisation and the political imperative to make them "look" as similar as possible without regard to the subject. They can be fixed, Sir Richard suggests, only with the involvement of universities and the acceptance that not all A-levels are equal.

GCSEs are dispatched with equal ruthlessness: time-consuming; ludicrously expensive; needlessly vast; a "confused conflation" of what should be taught and what should be externally assessed. Only English and maths need to be tested externally. Vocational qualifications? What a dog's breakfast. Designed and redesigned by central government, "promoted heavily and then summarily abolished". Users and employers could design something better. AS-levels? Don't go there.

Sir Richard, it is clear, is a militant when it comes to educational autonomy. The national curriculum? Shrink it. Exam boards? Set them free. Ofqual can take a hike. He is scathing about successive governments' politicisation of the curriculum and contemptuous of the league-table culture, this "obsession with measurement".

At which point Mr Gove might be feeling a tad nervous. Sir Richard's proposal for a general university entrance exam was, he said, a "significant" suggestion. Cromwell thought the Levellers' suggestion for annual parliaments was "significant", too - then he had them tried for sedition.

Only three weeks ago, Mr Gove was telling The Times that "the national curriculum would be rewritten under a Tory government to restore past methods of teaching history, English, maths and science". And here is Sir Richard declaring independence from Whitehall regardless of the occupants - "Teachers are told how to teach, even more than what to teach," he fumes. Assessment is used by government "as a tool for controlling what teachers teach, how and when". What's needed is a fully independent commission to revise the curriculum every five or ten years with no modifications in between from busybody politicians.

Is that what Mr Gove had in mind? Perhaps it's as well Sir Richard's report stopped at page 39. By page 40 he might have recommended that even servants get the vote.

Gerard Kelly, Editor E

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