Ten years of laughter and tears;Last word

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
DID you know that it is the 10th anniversary of the national curriculum? Although introduced by the 1988 Education Act, it was actually in September 1989 that five-year-olds stepped on to the 11-year conveyor belt for the first time. That same cohort of pioneers is just starting GCSE courses.

The story of the past decade adds a remarkable chapter to the history of education, as we moved speedily from local decision-making to the most tightly controlled central prescription in Europe. This tale of both triumph and Whitehall farce began with Kenneth Baker. Keen on publicity, he turned each report into a press jamboree: 10 subjects, 10 photo opportunities.

Baker's greatest wheeze was his attempt to find an explorer to chair the geography committee. Seemingly unaware that explorers tend to be out exploring, rather than sitting by the phone waiting for invitations to chair government committees, he tried in vain.

I was left with an enduring fantasy image of the great man wading neck deep up the Limpopo looking for his quarry, clad in shorts and pith helmet, hotly pursued by a television crew. It would have been marvellous to bump into him in deepest Africa and be able to say, "Ah, Mr Baker, I presume".

The first version of the national curriculum was farcically complex. There were 17 attainment targets in science and 14 in maths.

The history syllabus for junior school pupils covered all the invaders and settlers from King Ug the Caveman to the last busload of tourists, the Tudors and Stuarts, the building technology of the pyramids and Parthenon, the routes to the Spice Islands, the Aztecs, the history of plough design and plenty of others.

My favourite topic was "The history of transport before and after the wheel": a trifle full, I always thought. History at key stage 2 covered more than 4,000 years, allowing about one-and-a-half minutes per year.

The message was simple: avoid teaching the Spanish Armada in the hay fever season, as someone will sneeze and the class will never know who won.

One of the biggest problems in the first phase was numerous changes, often in the same year. In January 1991 "electricity and magnetism" constituted number 11 of the 17 science topics.

By May 1991, a reduction to five attainment targets was proposed, with good old electricity and magnetism buried under the title "forces". September 1991 saw a further reduction to four topics. It was a game of musical attainment targets, as dozens of topics scrambled aboard the remaining seats.

Another fiasco was the government list of great works of English literature issued to bewildered 14-year-olds one year: a single Shakespeare sonnet, a bit of Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, a poem about a lawnmower. Here is your official culture immunisation jab. Squish. Next please.

Most hilarious of all were the testing arrangements for seven-year-olds. "This is a pineapple", teachers would say to Year 2 children in corners of crowded classrooms. "Will it float or sink?" "It'll float, miss." "How do you know?" "It's been floating all week."

Then there were the helpful hints from official bodies, like: "How to deal with children who are regularly absent? Test them more frequently." But they're not actually here, sunshine. You couldn't have made it up.

There have, however, been a number of triumphs for the national curriculum, such as offering entitlement for all, not just the privileged, and great improvements in science.

Late 1970s' inspection reports said that only one primary class in 10 was getting a decent science programme, with little physical science being taught. "Plenty of tadpoles and sticky buds, but not much electricity" was the message.

Recently our pupils came sixth in the world in a large science study. There are not many areas where Britain is in the top six internationally.

So ten years of laughter and tears are now completed. I have been singing "Happy birthday, dear national curriculum" all week to celebrate.

Yet every snag encountered during those first early years was predicted before it happened. Sadly, politicians of the day ignored professional advice. It has been a salutary lesson in the folly of pursuing ideology rather than good sense.

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