Suppose an education minister decided that the country's future depended on basketball skills. Suppose that he set targets for 11-year-olds, say a success rate of 80 per cent in trying to score from five yards and suppose that schools were told to give a lower priority to everything else. Imagine that the minister stomped the country insisting that he would accept no excuses for failure, least of all that some children came to school shorter than others: teachers would be exhorted to stretch their pupils or lever them up until they reached the required proficiency in lobbing the ball into the net.
Can anyone doubt that England would soon lead the world in basketball? Substitute for basketball anything you like - cycling, fishing, brewing tea, washing-up - the point is the same.
The point is also the same for English and maths. When David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, came into office, 58 per cent of 11-year-olds were achieving level 4 or above in English, 54 per cent in maths. He said that by 2002 the figures would be 80 per cent and 75 per cent respectively. I wondered how he could so confidently give such a hostage to political and electoral fortune. If you look at the thing carefully, you will see that there is a catch: since Labour was elected in May 1997, the next general election must be held before the test results for 2002 are available. But I do not now think Mr Blunkett will need this let-out: if schools are told to concentrate on these targets, if the direst consequences are predicted for those who fall short, if teaching methods are laid down in the finest, idiot-proof detail, if work on literacy and numeracy becomes the main route for primary teachers' career advancement, the targets will be met, even exceeded, by summer 2001.
I welcome the Government's decision to set achievable targets. For at least 30 years schools have spread themselves too thinly, trying to meet too many (often conflicting) demands. If we are now to have a few years of spelling tests, textbooks, chanting tables, barking at print and general narrowness, it won't do us much harm.
But we should be clear about cause and effect: we shall attain precise, narrow targets because we have set precise, narrow targets - not because of any wider reforms. In the past decade, billions of pounds have been spent trying to improve our schools. Almost all of it has been wasted.
Take, first, the national curriculum. Its virtual abandonment in primary schools, and its increasing erosion in secondary schools, is surely evidence enough that it was a failure. The research on standards from the National Foundation for Educational Research and from a team at Manchester University suggests that the effect of all those working parties, all those statements of attainments and programmes of study was precisely nil, except to drive large numbers of teachers to the brink of insanity. The NFER, for example, found that reading standards among eight-year-olds, after dipping in 1991, returned in 1995 to almost exactly the level of 1987. Worse, the Manchester team found that among 11-year-olds, reading standards actually deteriorated between 1989 and 1995.
Second, the Office for Standards in Education. Philip Hunter, president of the Society of Education Officers, has analysed GCSE results over seven authorities. He found that, after an Ofsted visit, a school was likely to record a below-average improvement in its results, or even a deterioration.
Third, parental choice and school competition. An Open University team looked at 319 secondary schools in 89 areas. In areas where competition between schools was stiffest, GCSE results improved by less than the national average. Where competition was slight or non-existent, results improved by more than the national average.
Fourth, local management of schools. An important book published by the Open University Press last week, Devolution and Choice in Education: the School, the State and the Market by Geoff Whitty et al, looks at the evidence not just from England and Wales, but from Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and America. It finds no justification for the view that LMS benefits pupil achievement. It quotes a survey of heads in Birmingham which, to me, sums up everything that has been happening to our education system. Eighty-four per cent of the heads agreed that LMS allowed them to make more effective use of resources. However, only 35 per cent thought that children were benefiting from LMS. As Professor Whitty and colleagues drily observe: "Thus, it was rather unclear what their concept of greater effectiveness actually related to."
Finally, grant-maintained schools. Again, the message from Professor Whitty's team, though couched in restrained academic language, is devastating. Neither here nor abroad is there the slightest evidence that schools improve standards as a result of breaking away from official control. To be sure, they achieve better results, but these seem to be entirely attributable to their ability to attract or select a more able and less economically disadvantaged pupil intake. Even in the US, where whole districts have been privatised, schools seem to bring in a better class of pupil from outside or, at least, to exclude the worst local cases. Watch for something similar happening here when the education action zones get under way.
Much of this ground will be familiar to TES readers, partly because several of the studies have been reported in the paper over the past few months, partly because the results accord with their common sense understanding of how schools work. But it is not familiar ground to politicians, employers, journalists and parents. Indeed, those responsible for the farce that has afflicted schools since 1987 (and no other word is appropriate) have somehow managed to convince the world that they are the custodians of common sense, while the rest of us are crazed ideologues, intent on destroying academic excellence.
It is time to say very loudly and clearly and, yes, angrily, that children and teachers have been the victims of an elaborate, expensive and utterly misguided experiment. That is why I welcome Labour's attempt to achieve a few simple targets which, in reality, can hardly fail: at least they will give everybody a sense of success. But can we, while we're about it and since all that market nonsense has palpably failed, try a few other simple, old-fashioned ideas? Like smaller classes. Or more books and equipment. Or better school buildings. Or, if you want something for which the evidence of educational benefit is utterly overwhelming, the eradication of poverty.