Yippee! They're out, but the challenge is on

16th May 1997 at 01:00
It was sad that the general election ended so badly for the outgoing government. No, that's not quite what I'm trying to say, let me rephrase it. It was a pity they lost so many seats. No, that's still not right. Let me try again.

Whoopee, whoopee, whoopee! Yoicks, tally ho, wowee! Thanks a million! Hip, hip, hooray! Oh what a wonderful morning! Yes, yes, yes, at last, at long last! Don't ring us, we'll ring you. Bloody brilliant! On your bikes! Zippedy doo dah!

Yes, I think that is a bit closer to the feelings of the thousands of bleary-eyed, drunken teachers arrested for cartwheeling down the middle of the road all the way to their schools at 5am on Friday, May 2. Few tears were shed for a contemptuous government that had alienated most members of the major professions by treating them as if they were nothing more than self-interested serfs.

There are several elements of the past few years that can now be consigned to the refuse bin of history. Goodbye education ministers Simon Snakeoil, Cecil Clueless, Henry Halfbrain, Ralph Rightoffthewall and that hapless crew of actual and would-be right-wingers who peddled their daft dogma. Farewell to those politicians who rubbished teachers remorselessly, irrespective of whether examination pass rates went up or down.

Enough of the past. As we approach the 21st century there are several challenges facing schools if we are to prepare children for what is likely to be a much more demanding lifestyle than that experienced by their parents and grandparents, both in work and in home and family life. Five issues in particular need to be given special thought.

Top of these is improving the achievements of boys. I have written elsewhere in The TES about this, so I shall not go into the detail here, but boys now lag behind girls in every stage of their education, particularly in language activities, like reading in the primary school and GCSE English in the secondary school.

Second, we must make sure we get the national curriculum right for the 21st century. The present version is due to expire in the year 2000, so the next one really will be a curriculum for the millennium. The consultation process starts next month and I would advise all teachers and heads to get involved in discussions whenever opportunities arise. There is a tremendous amount of professional experience of teaching a national curriculum now available, and it must be drawn upon.

The present timetable is that in April 1998 ministers will be asked if they want to change the national curriculum. If there are to be changes, then these will be worked out between summer 1998 and summer 1999. There should be a full school year thereafter, from the summer of 1999, during which primary and secondary schools will know exactly what they have to teach in September 2000, when the new key stages 1, 2 and 3 are scheduled to start, and September 2001, when key stage 4 begins.

I hope that Curriculum 2000 will be seen not just as a set of subjects, but as something fuller that prepares young people for what should be a long and fruitful life, since many of them will live to be 90, 100, or more. Perhaps we can learn from experience last time that it is folly to over-prescribe the fine detail of what schools should do.

A third issue is the continuing mess in the education of pupils beyond the age of 16. It must be time to create a genuine equivalence of status between so-called academic and vocational courses and clarify the numerous pathways through what has rightly been called the 'post-16 jungle'. Students and their parents are completely baffled by the variety, standing, and particularly, by the terminology of this infinite network of courses, modules and options. Bring out the flamethrower.

The fourth issue is one that is well understood by parents and teachers alike, that is the parlous state of our educational buildings. Schools in cities and in rural areas, colleges of further education, many universities, are having to use buildings that are a disgrace. Back in Victorian times the three decker schools were a model to pupils who lived in squalor at home. With electricity, heating and running water, they appeared as palaces to the children whose homes were often slums.

Now the opposite is the case. Many children live in houses that are in far better repair than some of our ancient pre-war (which war?) schools, with their dry rot and leaking roofs, and our 1960s concrete mausoleums, with their wet rot and leaking roofs. We need a major national effort to make school buildings models of a better future, not relics of an ancient past.

The fifth issue is the morale of the teaching profession. I started teaching in the 1960s, though I have no great nostalgia for that period as there were some complete crackpots and fraudsters around. Nevertheless, I would love to recapture the spirit of adventure and excitement about education generated by Alec Clegg in what used to be called the West Riding of Yorkshire, and by the many heads and teachers who felt willing to have a go at something, without the uneasy feeling that they were probably breaking the law.

David Blunkett took an important step in writing to schools saying that he wanted a partnership. It is impossible to run thousands of primary and secondary schools without the support of the people who work in them. Teaching is a profession whose members came into it, in the main, because they wanted to improve the lot of future generations.

Alas, if only Simon Snakeoil, Cecil Clueless, Henry Halfbrain and Ralph Rightoffthewall had realised that "Welcome aboard, friend" is a better way of achieving genuine partnership than "On your knees, scumbag". But that is in the past. The future beckons.

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