Stop this testing lunacy

6th June 2003 at 01:00
James Tooley and Tony Edwards (right) may be at different ends of the political spectrum but are united in their views on targets.

Ten years ago, the 1993 Education Act instructed - for the first time - that the secretary of state for education should exercise his or her powers with a view to "encouraging diversity and increasing opportunities for choice".

This Act elaborated the five "great themes" identified by John Major's foreword to the 1992 White Paper, adding to choice and diversity, a desire for higher standards, greater autonomy for schools, and greater "accountability" to the state. Notwithstanding their conservative origins, New Labour has displayed astonishingly similar views of how the education system should be modernised.

In commenting on these themes, we write as the present and previous holders of the same chair of education at the University of Newcastle. James Tooley has been described in The TES as "the high priest of privatisation" and is comfortable with the epithet Thatcherite. Tony Edwards is unconverted and unashamedly "Old Labour".

Our views might be expected to diverge sharply, and so they do in many areas. But we agree on one fundamental issue: the current system of bureaucratic scrutiny, excessive testing and control by targets is nothing short of educational lunacy.

In both Tory and Labour creeds, freeing schools from local education authority control has been taken as a necessary condition for innovation, indicating responsiveness to consumer demand.

However, although we see local authority roles very differently - as protector of the public interest (Tony), or protector of harmful vested interest (James) - we both agree that whatever autonomy might have been granted to schools has been far outweighed by the inspection of compliance with government demands, and by a more extensive and disruptive testing regime than has ever been encountered before.

Reforms since 1993 can best be characterised, not as freeing schools or empowering consumers, but as switching control from local to centralised national control. In particular, obsessive government target-setting exalts what is most easily measurable, but which may not be most desirable educationally leads to a concentration of effort on students whose performance is most critical to schools' league table positions; and hugely advantages those schools enabled by their student intake to play the game successfully.

This is educational lunacy. We may have disagreements about other things.

Tony is worried that New Labour in office has evaded the question it asked while in opposition: "How much diversity is consistent with equality?" It has disregarded the role of common schools in providing a bridge between local social worlds and the wider society, he argues, replacing "old egalitarianism" with a meritocratic approach, which accepts greater inequalities provided they are deserved by ability plus effort.

James thinks that all this is a small step in the right direction. But such disagreements are dwarfed by our shared concern with the current bureaucratisation and centralisation of education.

The odd fact is that this educational lunacy has long been recognised. It is 10 years since the 1993 Act but 15 years since the 1988 Education Reform Act that set the whole crazy process in train.

Back in the parliamentary debates then, we also see a surprising degree of cross-party objection to the beginning bureaucratisation of education.

Concerning the national curriculum then, but surely applicable even more strongly to the compulsive centralisation since then, the late (lamented - James Tooley) Lord Joseph (Conservative) argued that "here we have over-government and, in my view, straitjacket government".

Baroness David (Liberal) concurred, seeking to prevent "the accumulation of quite unprecedented power in the hands of the present and future secretaries of state for education".

Lord Callaghan (Labour) worried that when he made the Ruskin speech 12 years ago, he had no idea that it would lead to such a rigid code.

The final word goes to Baroness Blackstone (Labour) in the same debate:

"One of the great strengths of the British education system has been the opportunities available for grassroot experiment and innovation - to develop various new kinds of approach, for heads to try out new ways of organising the school day and for classroom teachers to develop new teaching methods and new curricula."

That is the system both of us would like to return to. James believes the market is the best way of guaranteeing it. Tony believes that restoring stronger LEAs is the way forward. But both of us agree that the current educational lunacy has to end.

Tony Edwards is emeritus professor and James Tooley professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle

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